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Gcse ancient History

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The Effect of Events in Athens

The Greeks in Salamis, when the course of events at the Athenian acropolis was announced to them, were so disturbed that some of the generals did not wait for a decision on the matter being discussed, but hurried on board their ships and hoisted their sails to run away. Those who remained decided to fight a sea-battle at the Isthmus.

Herodotus, 8.56

The Athenians had taken a decision to abandon the city, under the advice of Themistocles. They had been advised by the Delphic oracle to put their ‘trust in the wooden wall’: debate had raged about what this meant, some thinking that it meant to stay behind the wooden wall on the Acropolis, whilst Themistocles argued the opposite. For him, it meant that they must leave the city, and take to their ships. This they did, evacuating the women and children to Troezen, Aegina and Salamis.

The Oracle

Herodotus tells of two oracles from Delphi, neither of which seemed very encouraging. Part of the second – the one which Themistocles interpreted - was as follows:

‘Though all else shall be taken within the bound of Cecrops

And the fastness of the holy mountain of Cithaeron,

Yet Zeus the all-seeing grants to Athene’s prayer

That the wooden wall only shall not fall, but help you and your children.

But await not the host of the horse and foot coming from Asia,

Nor be still, but turn your back and withdraw from the foe.

Truly a day will come when you will meet him face to face.

Divine Salamis, you will bring death to women’s sons

When the corn is scattered, or the harvest gathered in.’

(Herodotus, 7.141, p.462 trans. A. de Selincourt rev. Marincola, Penguin, 2003)


Delphi was famous throughout the Greek world as a sanctuary to Apollo. It had an oracle, to which both Greeks and non-Greeks would go when they were looking for answers to important questions. The oracle was a priestess, or Pythia, who would commune with the god, and then speak in a strange language. This would be translated by the priests into Greek verse, like that given before Salamis. The oracles were usually in a riddle-like form, leaving the questioner to interpret what they really meant.

In command was the Spartan Eurybiades, since the Hellenic League had agreed that the Spartans would take command. This was despite the fact that almost half the fleet was Athenian. Themistocles, the Athenian commander, agreed to the Spartan taking control, although there were moments when Eurybiades appeared to be a disastrous choice for commander.

Herodotus’ Figures for the Greek Fleet

Sparta 16

Corinth 40

Sicyon 15

Epidaurus 10

Athenians 180

Megara 20

Aegina 30

Chalcis 20

Others 47

Total 378
After the commanders had agreed to fight at the Isthmus, an Athenian named Mnesiphilus came to Themistocles and pointed out that if the fleet left Salamis where it was now stationed, the consensus which they had gained would be lost. Each state would go in their own direction, and Greece would be lost for ever. He urged Themistocles to find a way to ensure that the battle was fought at Salamis.
Themistocles went to see Eurybiades, and Herodotus describes how he gave an impassioned speech in an attempt to persuade him. His arguments were clear:

  1. Narrow Space benefits the Greeks: at Salamis the Greeks had the advantage of fighting in a narrow space.

  2. Women and Children: by fighting at Salamis they would be able to protect their women and children who were on the island and on Aegina.

  3. Defence of the Peloponnese: fighting at Salamis would enable them to defend the Peloponnese just as much as fighting at the Isthmus.

  4. Naval Victory a Turning Point: if the Greeks are victorious at sea, the Persians will retreat in disarray.

The Corinthian, Adeimantus, who had previously attacked Themistocles’ arguments, did so again, accusing him of not having a country – because Athens was no in Persian hands. Themistocles, however, persuaded Eurybiades. He probably forced Eurybiades’ hand by threatening to withdraw his ships.

When the Persian fleet came near to Salamis, Xerxes was uncertain about the course of action: would he fight a naval battle or not? All his commanders voted for the battle, but queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus advised against it. She, alone of the commanders, seems to have had the courage to speak her mind. The others thought that Xerxes would be furious, but he was impressed with her words. Nevertheless, he decided that they should fight. This account from Herodotus (Herodotus, 8.67-8) seems a little strange: would this tyrannical ruler really have asked his commanders in this way? Perhaps, but it is worth thinking carefully about this.
The ships set sail, and proceeded towards Salamis. Meanwhile, on land, the Greeks were working hard to stop the Persian land-forces from taking the Isthmus.
At this point Themistocles decided to force the issue, and employed a tactic which would forever leave question marks over his name. He sent a man, Sicinnus, in a boat over to the Persian fleet. He had instructed Sicinnus to tell the Persians that Themistocles wished the Persian king well, and that the Greeks were afraid and planning to escape. If they were to attack now, the Persians stood a good chance of defeating the Greeks. The Persians believed Sicinnus, and prepared to fight the following day.
Whether Themistocles was really intending to help Xerxes or force a victory for the Greeks will always be a matter for debate. However, it is clear from Herodotus’ account that Sicinnus’ words (Herodotus, 8.75) highlighted one very important danger for the Greeks: they would break up, and their unity as a fighting force would be destroyed. This was already beginning to happen, and Themistocles may have realised that it was ‘now or never’.
Herodotus gives a detailed account of how the Persians prepared in silence for an attack the following morning. They had taken up stations which blocked the Greeks from both ends.
The playwright Aeschylus was an eye-witness at the battle. He tells us that Persians ships were drawn up in three lines outside the entrance to the sound. On the left were the Ionians, on the right the Phoenician sailors, who were the most experienced.

Aeschylus (525-456BC) was a fifth century playwright who wrote some of the greatest tragedies produced in this period. He is most famous for his trilogy called the Oresteia which begins with the Agamemnon, a play describing the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra. The other two plays look at the effects of this murder and the search for justice. Despite his great career as a playwright, Aeschylus’ epitaph on his tomb recalled his fighting at Marathon. It stated: ‘Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who died in wheat-bearing Gela; the grove of Marathon can tell of his noble bravery, or the long-haired Persian who knows it well.’ This shows how greatly those who fought in these battles were honoured.

At day-break, the Persians began to advance. Because the space was so narrow, the Persians were crowded together. The Phoenicians led the way, and were immediately attacked by the Athenians, who cut them off from the rest of the fleet. The men from Aegina fought particularly bravely: they helped the Athenians to defeat the Phoenicians and forced the Ionians to turn tail.
An important aspect of the battle was the lack of space: this gave the smaller Greek fleet a relative advantage. Only relatively few Persian ships could face their enemy at any one time. The crowded space also made it difficult for the combatants to make much use of their naval skills. Also the Persians did not know the waters as well as the Greeks.
Once Xerxes saw the extent of the defeat, he was afraid that the Greeks might consider making a dash for the Hellespont. Here they could have cut the bridge which he had built, and stopped his land forces from returning to Asia. He made plans for his escape, including the development of a causeway across the water towards Salamis. This was intended to fool the Greeks, so that they thought he intended to remain continue the fight.
Salamis brought an end to Xerxes’ stay in Greece. Mardonius was appointed to continue the action by land, whilst the Great King himself returned to his own land.

Read Herodotus’ account of the battle of Salamis, Herodotus, 8.78-112.

  1. Briefly describe the battle of Salamis.

  2. Outline the role of Themistocles in the battle.

  3. What picture emerges of Themistocles’ character from Herodotus’ account?

  4. Do you think Themistocles should be seen as a hero or a potential traitor? Explain your answer with reference to Herodotus’ account.

  5. Xerxes wanted to watch the battle. Explain why you think this was.

  6. How far do you think Herodotus’ account of the battle of Salamis is reliable?

3.6 The Battle of Plataea
Themistocles spent the winter of 480/79BC at the Congress in Sparta, discussing the future strategy against the Persians. The Athenians, however, clearly felt displeased with his efforts, and elected Xanthippus and Aristides as generals in his place.
The following summer, 479BC, Attica was again evacuated, as the Persians attacked again. The people withdrew to Salamis, and the Persians again destroyed Athens. The Athenians appealed to Sparta.
After the death of Leonidas at Thermopylae, his young son had become king. However, he was too young to rule, so Pausanias, his guardian, became regent. Pausanias, therefore, led a Spartan force to the Isthmus. He was joined by forces from Athens, Plataea, Megara, Aegina and Corinth. In total a force of some 30,000 men was assembled.
Meanwhile, after the defeat at Salamis, Xerxes retreated home. He left Mardonius, his general, in command. Mardonius first attempted to make a truce with the Athenians, but they refused these advances. When Mardonius saw Pausanias had his forces approaching, he retreated from Athens to Boeotia, where he prepared his 40,000-50,000 men for a battle at Plataea.
The battle which followed took an unusual course. It would appear that Pausanias had little control over the different contingents. At first Pausanias gave an order to retreat, intending to defend a particular pass, but Aristides, the Athenian commander, refused to obey. He advanced further north.

The Importance of the Persians at Plataea

It is clear to me that the whole barbarian operation depended upon the Persians: because when they saw the Persians retreat, even before they had even come to grips with the enemy, they fled.

Herodotus, 9.68

When the Persians attacked, they were met by a strong Spartan phalanx. The Athenians, on the other hand, found themselves fighting other Greeks. The Thebans had joined the enemy. Eventually, they were beaten. After the battle, Pausanias decided that those Thebans who had medised should be taken to the Isthmus and executed.

During the battle, Mardonius was killed, and so the Persians were defeated. The Athenians set up an altar to Zeus on the battle field. They also established a four-yearly festival in celebration of Salvation, which took place on the site of the battle.

Xerxes’ Tent

Herodotus describes how when he returned to Persia, Xerxes had left his tent for Mardonius. It was full of all kinds of luxury: embroidery, gold and silver. When the battle was over Pausanias came to this tent, and gave orders that the king’s former servants prepare a meal as they would have for him. The elaborate preparations led to the display of a magnificent feast. Pausanias then gave orders that a Spartan meal be prepared. This was an infamous black-broth, which had little to recommend it.

When the two meals were set side by side, the difference was striking. Pausanias then commented: ‘Men of Greece, I brought you together to see this, wishing to show you the folly of the Persian leader, who, having this life-style, has come to seize us when we live in such poverty.’

Herodotus, 9.82

3.7 The Battle of Mycale
Meanwhile, the Spartan king Leotychidas was leading a naval expedition to Ionia. He came across a Persian naval encampment at Mycale. He stormed this, and the Persian ships went up in flames. The Ionians also fought hard against the Persians, and killed many of their men.
This action led to a wider revolt from Persia in Ionia, and everywhere the tyrants and Persian garrisons were driven out. At this point, the Ionians asked the Spartans to protect them by allowing them to join the Hellenic Alliance. The Spartans refused, advising them to move to mainland Greece.


‘The Battle of Plataea, more than any other battle, ensured that the Persians would not make another attempt on Greece.’ Do you agree?

3.8 The relative roles of Athens and Sparta in defending the Greeks against the Persians
Both Athens and Sparta took leading roles in the defeat of the Persian attempts on Greece. Traditionally, Sparta had been the dominant military power in Greece. This can be seen at the time of the battle of Marathon: the Athenians’ first thought is to turn to Sparta for help. When that help was not forthcoming, they decided to act on their own with just the small contingent of Plataeans as support. This showed that they could take the military initiative, and be successful.

Later, it would appear to be a combination of Spartan leadership and Athenian intelligence which won the day. There can be little doubt about the power of Leonidas’ leadership at Thermopylae: he and those with him fought bravely to the last, and held up the Persian advance. However, like the battle at Atremisium in which the Athenians played a leading role, these battles did little because of delaying the enemy and causing them to think about the opposition.

A key element in the Greek success was the foresight of Themistocles in encouraging the Athenians to develop a fleet. According to Plutarch, he saw that the Persian conflict was not over with Marathon, and it was for this reason that he encouraged the Athenians to develop their fleet. Without this fleet, the Greeks would have failed at Salamis.
One criticism can be clearly levelled against the Spartans: they seemed slow to act, and unwilling to get involved beyond the Peloponnese. Initially at Marathon they were unconcerned, but later at the Isthmus and again at Salamis they seemed slow to act. If Herodotus’ account is accurate, it was only the trickery of Themistocles which forced Eurybiades to act. Had they not acted at this time, the story of the battle of Salamis might have been very different.
It is important to remember, however, that Herodotus was reliant on the sources available to him. Sparta was a notoriously closed society, and it was very difficult to discover much about it. On the other hand, Herodotus had spent considerable amounts of time in Athens, and so may well have heard an Athenian version of events, which increased the importance of his hosts’ city.
The Athenians had to abandon their city, and it was sacked by the Persians. This affected the Athenians so greatly that they decided not to rebuild the temples on the acropolis for thirty years after the conflict: and even then Pericles had to persuade them to move ahead with his plans to create the Parthenon and other now famous temples. The Athenians had lost a lot. The Corinthian commander Adeimantus was right on one level: at Salamis Themistocles was the only commander without a city. Perhaps that situation spurred the Athenians on to act in a way beyond what everyone expected.


  1. Make a list of what the Spartans and Athenians respectively did in the fight against the Persians. Complete this as a table.

  2. Which state was more important in the defence of Greece against Persia – Athens or Sparta? Explain your answer.

3.9 Military tactics, armour and weaponry used by the Persians and Greeks
The Phalanx

A key element of the Greek strength in land-battles was the phalanx: ordered rows of soldiers, with their shields on their left arm, and their spears in the right. Because the shield only covered the left side of a soldier’s body, he was reliant on his neighbour’s shield for the safety of the right side.


There were two main types of soldier: the heavily armed hoplites and the more lightly armed peltasts. It is important to remember that many of the Persian troops would have been Greeks from Ionia or other hired hands, so the differences between the two sides are probably less than we might expect.


The mainstay of the Greek fighting force was the Hoplite, a heavily armed soldier. His main weapon was a long iron-tipped spear, which was between 3-4m in length. A hoplite would also have a short sword, some 60cm in length. The sword was used for both a cutting and thrusting motion. He also carried a round shield, made of wood covered with bronze and an inner leather lining. His upper body was covered with a breastplate below which a linen cuirass was worn. On his shins there were moulded bronze greaves, and simple leather sandals on his feet. The soldier’s head was protected by a helmet, and, in the case of the Corinthians, this was topped with a plume of dyed horse-hair.


A peltast was a more lightly armed Greek soldier. He carried a crescent-shaped wicker shield, covered with goat or sheepskin. Most also carried a one or two handled scythe or falx - a traditional Balkan weapon. Some of Darius’ force in 490 BC were Thracian peltasts.

Archers and Spearmen

The Persian force included archers from Scythia. These archers were able to fire very large numbers of arrows in a short space of time. However, they would have been lightly armed, and, once over run by hoplites, would not have survived long.

Herodotus gives the following description of the Persian soldiers:
‘First the Persians themselves: the dress of these troops consisted of the tiara, or soft felt cap, embroidered tunic with sleeves, a coat of mail looking like the scales of a fish, and trousers; for arms they carried large wicker shields, quivers slung below them, short spears, powerful bows with cane arrows, and daggers swinging from belts beside the right thigh.’
(Herodotus, 7.61, p.439 trans. A. de Selincourt rev. Marincola, Penguin, 2003)
Herodotus goes on to describe the other forces within the Persian expedition: Herodotus 7.61-80. His description gives a sense of the range of different nations involved. The idea of simply co-ordinating such a range of people is difficult, if one considers the different fighting methods and the challenges of numerous different languages. The very range of forces must have put Xerxes’ force at something of a disadvantage.


  1. Describe a Greek hoplite: their weapons, clothing and armour.

  2. Describe a Persian soldier: their weapons, clothing and armour.

  3. In an engagement between a Greek and a Persian soldier, which would have the advantage? Explain your answer.

A. Read Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon, Herodotus, 6.98-118.

  1. Describe the Athenian tactics in the battle.

  2. To what extent do you think these tactics were responsible for the Athenian victory?

B. Read Herodotus’ account of battle of Thermopylae, Herodotus, 7.206-228.

  1. What were the Spartan tactics at this battle?

  2. How did these tactics differ from those of the Athenians?

C. Compare and contrast the techniques used by the Athenians and the Spartans at Marathon and

3.10 The ships of the Greeks and Persians
Although the Greeks and the Persians may originally have had very different ships, the Persian forces included a large number of Greek ships from Ionia. The design of the ships, in particular the trireme, was an essential element in the sea battles at Artemesium and Salamis.
The Persians had an extremely strong naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean because of the peoples they had conquered. The Phoenicians, Ionians and even Egyptians all added to their naval arsenal. The forces at the battle of Artemisium give a sense of the make-up of the Persian forces.

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