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Herodotus. The Persian Wars, The Rise of Athens, and the Invention of History. Key Battles-Overview. 546 Persian Conquest of Asia Minor 499-94 Ionian Rebellion 490 Battle of Marathon 480 Invasion of Xerxes 480 Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis 479 Plataea 431-404 Peloponnesian War

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The Persian Wars, The Rise of Athens, and the Invention of History

Key battles overview
Key Battles-Overview

  • 546 Persian Conquest of Asia Minor

  • 499-94 Ionian Rebellion

  • 490 Battle of Marathon

  • 480 Invasion of Xerxes

  • 480 Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis

  • 479 Plataea

  • 431-404 Peloponnesian War

  • 404-03 Thirty Tyrants at Athens; Restoration of Democracy

Sparta cf athens
Sparta (cf. Athens)

  • Subjected the helots

  • Every man was required to, from the age of seven, be trained for war.

  • Men lived in the mess hall and trained every day.

  • Women could be educated, had relative freedom, could choose their own husbands.

  • Each man was given a plot of land and enough helots (they were state-owned) so he wouldn’t have to work.

  • The Spartans were always in the minority in their land, vastly outnumbered by the helots, therefore, they needed to have a constantly-ready warrior class. They could not be away from home for long.

  • They were ruled by two hereditary kings who provided military leadership along with a council of 28 men (over the age of 60). They also had the Gerousia that voted on key issues.

  • They achieved incredible equality among citizens, but at the expense of a subject population. Great at fighting and building, but not at the arts, since individual achievement was discouraged.

Athens cf sparta
Athens (cf. Sparta)

  • Athens did not have a subject population, per se, but its tensions were always over how to share power among various groups and classes within the city. Weber says that as a result of commercialization the city was divided into: aristocrats, new wealth (with land), new wealth (without land), craftsmen, unskilled workers, subsistance farmers, sharecroppers, and debt slaves, plus a burgeoning population of metics and slaves.

  • Solon’s reforms (594/93) were aimed at protecting the peasant class (with a debt-bail-out) and insuring social justice, but he also used wealth as the criteria for an aristocratic council that directed the assembly. This is actually a big step, making wealth, rather than birth, the basis for public office.

  • The tyrants, especially the Peisistratids (named after Peisistratos/Pisistratos) further strengthened central administration at the expense of the aristocracy, and made Athens central, establishing a national coinage, and creating and embellishing city festivals.

  • Cleisthenes’ reforms (508) broke the family structure and creating ten artificial tribes along local lines.

  • Most scholars believe that the use of the Athenian navy in resistance to the Persians gave rise to more democratic foundations that eliminated the last vestiges of aristocratic privilege in the constitution (under Ephialtes and Pericles).

Sixth century athens aristocratic
Sixth-century Athens--Aristocratic

  • “Basileus” retained as aristocratic magistry

  • “Archon” is chief magistrate

  • Aristocratic excesses

  • Debt slavery sinks most of the free population

  • Appointment of Solon as a lawgiver halts a civil war in the 590’s.

Solon s reforms
Solon’s Reforms

  • End debt-slavery

  • Uses public funds to relieve/redeem poor Athenians

  • Protects property ownership

  • Ends aristocratic privileges

  • Replaces aristocratic rule with a property-based oligarchy

Pisistratos tyrant three times 560 527
PisistratosTyrant Three Times 560-527

  • “Tyranny” in the ancient world tends to be the rule of one man based upon “popular” (i.e. non-aristocratic) support

  • Solon only provided temporary relief, but lower-classes were still deprived of economic power (not to mention political power)

  • Peisistratos centralized Athens, established festivals, created public buildings/spaces.

Persian war s
Persian War(s)

  • There were numerous Greek colonies on the west coast of Asia Minor

  • In 499 B.C. some Greek colonies revolted against Persian rule

  • Athens sent troops to support the revolt


The battle of marathon
The Battle of Marathon

  • Athens asked Sparta to help, but Spartan troops would not arrive for 9 days (they were in the middle of religious festivals)

  • Other city-states decided not to help Athens against the Persian Empire

  • Athens, largely alone, faced the Persian attack force

    • Persian troops—100,000

    • Athenian troops—20,000


  • The Athenians used a well-trained hoplite formation.

  • The organized charge surprised the large but scattered (and poorly organized) Persian army

  • A double-envelopment charge routed the Persians and sent them fleeing.

    • Persians—6, 400 dead

    • Athenians—192 dead

    • Darius returned to Persia, dying before he could mountain another punitive attack.

Xerxes invasion
Xerxes’ Invasion

  • Xerxes was committed to punishing and enslaving the Greeks.

  • In 480 B.C. the Persians led an enormous international force into Greece

  • Persians met a force of Greeks at Thermopylae

  • This was a small mountain pass that controlled access to all of Greece

  • For two days 7,000 Greeks held the Persians back, but…


  • A Greek traitor, Ephialtes (?), showed the Persians a secret trail that allowed them to send part of their force to sneak up from behind and attack the Greeks

  • Most of the Greek defenders ran away, but . . .

  • About 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas, stayed behind and fought to their deaths

  • This allowed the other Greeks to escape capture or certain death


  • The Persians poured into Greece, wreaking havoc and setting fire to Athens

  • As their city-state burned the Athenian people and the army escaped to the island of Salamis

  • The Persians were quick to follow the retreating Greeks to Salamis

  • Meanwhile, a three-day storm had devastated many of the Persian ships.

  • Still, they had many ships left and pursued the Athenian fleet.

  • The Athenians, with slower less maneuverable ships, stacked them with marines and used superior strategy to ram and sink many of the Persian ships.

The final battle
The Final Battle fire to Athens

  • The Battle of Plataea

  • The Greeks and Persians at equal strength

  • Athens and Sparta fought side by side

  • Greek military superiority won out and Persia retreated for good

Herodotus as historian
Herodotus as Historian fire to Athens

  • “historia” means “research” or “inquiry”

  • Until the modern era, history was literary, and generally thought to be “instructive.”

  • But it is clearly different from epic, trying to ground its narrative in what “men have done,” providing some kind of causal explanation that is, to some degree, “material.”

Herodotus the historian
Herodotus the Historian fire to Athens

  • ca 490-420 BCE

  • Probably writing and reading/performing 450-420’s.

  • Well-known in Athens from these readings. 

  • We should compare this work with Homer’s. He is clearly very familiar with Homer and wants to do a lot of the same kinds of things, namely report on the great works of men, but he is not so concerned with the work of the gods and he frequently questions Homer’s narrative.

  • Also, he does not seek out the Muse as inspiration, but relies on a method of inquiry (historia). The intrusion of his authorial presence into the narrative highlights the inquisitive nature of the project.

This project attempts to explain the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians, but it also does more:

  • it emphasizes the pan-Hellenic character of the Greek people (possibly).

  • it explores in general why people come into conflict.

  • it argues in favor of freedom.

  • it argues against imperialism.

  • it argues against the evils of war.

  • it seems to argue for the necessity of resolving Greek conflicts in favor of a more unified stance.

  • it tries to situate the Greek world, with its customs, on a conceptual map of the “inhabited world.” In doing so, it is also an attempt to construct a Greek identity.


He is often called the “father of history,” but some are put off by the “tall tales” he tells. For sure, he does get some things wrong, and he does tell a lot of fabulous stories, but he often makes it clear that he is reporting on what people say about various problems. In fact, he is often trying to correct the misunderstandings of the common perceptions.

He seems to be constantly teasing out the relationship between fate and human action.

He seems to argue against notions of hubris.

He gives lots of examples that point to the instability of human fortune, and the necessity of cycles of rise and fall, and the looming presence of death.

He seems to have some notion of an almost karma-like mechanism that brings consequences to the evil-doer.