Third Period of History - Persian Invasion

The year 490 B.C. closes the gradually-improving period in Grecian history, or second period, as it has been termed; and now commenced an era marked by the important event of an invasion from a powerful Asiatic sovereign.

Darius, king of Persia, having imagined the possibility of conquering Greece, sent an immense army against it in the year just mentioned. Greatly alarmed at the approach of such an enemy, the Athenians applied to the Spartans for aid; but that people had a superstition which prohibited their taking the field before the moon was at the full, and as at the time of the application it still wanted five days of that period, they therefore delayed the march of their troops. Being thus refused all assistance from their neighbors, the Athenians were left to depend entirely on their own courage and resources. A more remarkable instance of a small state endeavoring to oppose the wicked aggression. of an overgrown power, has seldom occurred in ancient or modern times; but the constant exercises and training of the Athenian population enabled them to present a bold and by no means contemptible front to the invader. War had been their principal employment, and in the field they displayed their noblest qualities. They were unacquainted with those highly-disciplined evolutions which give harmony and concert to numerous bodies of men; but what was wanting in skill they supplied by courage. The Athenian, and also other Greek soldiers, marched to the field in a deep phalanx, rushed impetuously to the attack, and bravely closed with their enemies. Each warrior was firmly opposed to his antagonist, and compelled by necessity to the same exertions of valor as if the fortune of the day depended on his single arm. The principal weapon was a spear, which, thrown by the nervous and well-directed vigor of a steady hand, often penetrated the firmest shields and bucklers. When they missed their aim, or when the stroke proved ineffectual through want of force, they drew their swords, and summoning their utmost resolution, darted impetuously on the foe. This mode of war was common to the soldiers and generals, the latter being as much distinguished in battle by their strength and courage as their skill and conduct. The Greeks had bows, slings, and darts, intended for the practice of distant hostility; but their chief dependence was on the spear and sword. Their defensive armor consisted of a bright helmet, adorned with plumes, and covering the head, a strong corslet defending the breast, greaves of brass decending the leg to the feet, and an ample shield, loosely attached to the left shoulder and arm, which turned in all directions, and opposed its firm resistance to every hostile assault. With men thus organized and accoutred, a battle consisted of so many duels, and the combatants fought with all the keenness of personal resentment. The slaughter in such engagements was correspondingly great, the fight seldom terminating till one of the parties was nearly destroyed, or at least greatly reduced in numbers.

It was a people so animated and prepared that the hosts of Persia were about to encounter. Compelled to meet the invaders unassisted, the Athenians were able to march an army of only 9000 men, exclusive of about as many light-armed slaves, into the field. With Miltiades as their leader and commander-in-chief, they met the Persians in battle on the plain of Marathon, thirty miles from Athens, and by great skill and courage, and the force of their close phalanx of spearmen, completely conquered them. Upwards of 6000 Persians were slain on the field, while the number killed of the Athenians was but 192. This is reckoned by historians one of the most important victories in ancient times, for it saved the independence of the whole of Greece. To the disgrace of the fickle Athenians, they afterwards showed the greatest ingratitude to Miltiades, and put him in prison on a charge of favoring the Persians. He died there the year after his great victory. Soon after, the citizens of Athens, on a plea equally unfounded, banished Aristides, an able leader , of the aristocratic party in the state, and who, from his strict integrity and wisdom, was usually entitled Aristides the Just.' On the banishment of this eminent individual, Themistocles a person who was more democratic in his sentiments, became the leader of councils of the Athenians. Meanwhile the Grecian liberties were again menaced by the Persians. Xerxes, son of Darius, marched an army across the Hellespont by a bridge of boats from the Asiatic shore, and led it towards the southern part of Greece. The utmost force that the confederate Greeks could oppose to the countless host of Persians, did not exceed 60,000 men. Of these, a band of Spartans, numbering 8,000 soldiers, under Leonidas their king, was posted at the pass of Thermopylae, to intercept the enemy, and here they discomfited every successive column of the Persians as it entered the defile. Ultimately, foreseeing certain destruction, Leonidas commanded all to retire but 300, with whom he proposed to give the Persians some idea of what the Greeks could submit to for the sake of their country. He and his 300 were cut off to a man. Xerxes took possession of Attica and Athens, but in the naval battle with the Athenian fleet at Salamis, which occurred soon after [October 20, 480 B.C.], his army was utterly routed, and its scattered remains retreated into Asia.

By this splendid victory the naval power of Persia was almost annihilated, and the spirit of its monarch so completely humbled, that he durst no longer undertake offensive operations against Greece. Here, therefore, the war ought to have terminated; but so great and valuable had been the spoils obtained by the confederate forces, that they were unwilling to relinquish such a profitable contest. The war, therefore, was continued for twenty years longer, less, apparently, for the chastisement of Persia, than for the plunder of her conquered provinces.

But now that all danger was over, many of the smaller states, whose population was scanty, began to grow weary of the contest, and to furnish with reluctance their annual contingent of men to reinforce the allied fleet. It was, in consequence, arranged that those states whose citizens were unwilling to perform personal service, should send merely their proportion of vessels, and pay into the common treasury an annual subsidy, for the maintenance of the sailors with whom the Athenians undertook to man the fleet. The unforeseen but natural consequence of this was the establishment of the complete supremacy of Athens. The annual subsidies gradually assumed the character of a regular tribute, and were compulsorily levied as such; while the recusant communities, deprived of their fleets, which had been given up to the Athenians, were unable to offer effectual resistance to the oppressive exactions of the dominant state. The Athenians were thus raised to an unprecedented pitch of power and opulence, and enabled to adorn their city, to live in dignified idleness, and to enjoy a constant succession of the most costly public amusements, at the expense of the vanquished Persians, and of' the scarcely more leniently-treated communities of the dependent confederacy.