The Greeks and Persians battled for over 175 years, between the beginning of the Greco-Persian Wars in 499 BC, and the end of Alexander the Great’s Persian campaigns in 327 BC. Possibly hundreds of thousands of Greeks, Persians, and their allies perished in these conflicts. Both sides won impressive battles, but the Greco-Macedonians ultimately triumphed.
For the civilizations involved in these wars, the cultural exchange that came about was enormous, and has had long-lasting effects still felt and seen to this day. This list covers the ten most significant battles or sieges fought during these ancient wars, and are the battles from this era that are frequently the subjects of documentaries or cinematic reenactments and are essentially the ones that routinely are mentioned in textbooks as well.
10. The Battle of Marathon (August / September 490 BC)
One of the most recognizable battles of all time, Marathon involved thousands of defending Greeks versus hundreds of thousands of invading Persians. The battle was the final, decisive battle of the First Persian Invasion of Greece. The battle was a punitive expedition by Great King Darius I of Persia to punish Athens for supporting the Ionian Greeks in a revolt against Persia that had occurred earlier in the 490’s. Despite overwhelming numerical odds, the tactical supremacy of the Greek forces proved more important than mere numbers and, as such, Miltiades’s Greeks triumphed in a battle that resulted in thousands of Persian deaths, and the end of Darius’s failed invasion.
According to legend, the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran to Athens with news of the victory. He reported his news, and then died of exhaustion. This fatal run inspired the athletic event, which modern athletes usually survive. The Athenian victory was a major boost to Greek confidence, and demonstrated that the citizen army of newly-democratic Athens could excel, thereby also serving as a victory for democracy. Nevertheless, the Persians did not give up and, in fact, would return with an even bigger military bent on conquest, rather than mere punishment.
9. The Battles of Artemisium and Thermopylae (August – September 480 BC)
This battle marks the time that two important battles fought on land and sea during the second, more elaborate invasion of the Greek city-states by the Persian juggernaut. After Darius’s disaster at Marathon, his successor Xerxes planned a massive campaign to conquer the Greek city-states. The Persian forces included armies and navies of an unprecedented scale to that point in human history. The Persian naval forces at Artemisium numbered 800 to Greece’s 271. The Persian army was even more astonishing. The modern estimates place the Persian forces at Thermopylae at as low as 70,000, while ancient historians claimed the Persians numbered as high as 2,600,000. Both are incredible numbers, especially when we consider that a mere 5,200 to 11,200 Greeks stood against them.
In either case, on both land and at sea, the Persians had a considerable numerically advantage and, not surprisingly, the Persians won in both cases, achieving strategic success at Artemisium and gaining control of Boeotia after Thermopylae. Yet, the Persians sustained many more losses than the Greeks: 200 Persian ships lost to 100 Greek ships, and 20,000 Persians soldiers lost to 4,000 Greek soldiers.
These battles have become celebrated in Western Civilization as examples of Western bravery, with slain Spartan King Leonidas I and his 300 Spartans being revered as heroes.
8. The Battle of Salamis (September 480 BC)
By this point in the war, the situation looked grim for Greece. A Spartan king was dead. The Persians had also followed up on their victories by not only desecrating Leonidas’s corpse, but by capturing and even burning Athens. Yes, the Persians had sustained greater number of losses in the twin land and sea battles, but they had greater numbers to begin with. Yet, astonishingly, Themistocles managed to lead the Greek city-states to a decisive victory at Salamis.
The Greeks had 366 to 378 ships, versus 600 to 1,200 Persian ships. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, the Greeks lost a mere 40 ships to Persia’s losses of 200 ships. The battle was one of the most significant in world history, as it meant Persia had failed to conquer the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Had they won, and Athens and Sparta became part of the Persian Empire, the subsequent history of the world would have been altered fundamentally. Keep in mind that it was after the Greco-Persian Wars that Athenian democracy and culture flourished. How would the careers and influence of everyone from Socrates to Plato have played out under Persian rule? As such, Salamis must rank among the ten or so most important battles in human history.
7. The Battle of Plataea (August 479 BC)
Yet, Salamis was not the end of the war. Xerxes was obviously disillusioned by this point, but he still had a fairly large army in Greece, even if his navy had suffered a cataclysmic loss, and that army would remain in Greece for the next year. The numbers were still lopsided in Persia’s favor at the next crucial battle, at least according to the ancient sources. Ancient historian Herodotus claimed that 110,000 Greeks opposed 300,000 Persians, though modern historians believe it was more like 80,000 Greeks versus a more comparable 70,000 to 120,000 Persians.
In any case, by the time this battle concluded, anywhere from 159 to 10,000 Greeks had been lost to as many as 257,000 Persians. As a result of the battle, Persia lost control of both Attica and Boeotia. Shortly afterwards, the Greeks finished off the Persian invasion at the Battle of Mycale on August 27, 480. In the aftermath of this victory, Persia lost the Aegean islands, and Ionia, where the crisis that started the Greco-Persian Wars in the first place nearly two decades earlier, began a second revolt against Persian rule.
6. The Battle of Aegospotami (405 BC)
For the remainder of the century, relations between the Greek city-states and Persia were not exactly pleasant. Greeks spent the next few decades after Plataea counter-attacking the Persians in Asia Minor. The Athenian-led Delian League continued to fight Persia all the way until peace was finally agreed upon in 449. The war had lasted for a brutal fifty years, and was finally over.
Only not really. Neither side had been destroyed in the conflict, which meant new wars could spring up to disturb the peace of the Aegean Sea. One of which was the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which dragged on for nearly thirty years (431 to 404 BC.) In it, Sparta actually allied with Persia against Athens, so as to finally and decisively turn the tide of the war in Sparta’s favor. In the decisive naval battle at Aegospotami, 180 Sparta, Persian, and Corinthian ships challenged 170 Athenian ships. Sparta and Persia suffered minimal losses, while Athens not only lost 150 ships, but then endured the execution of 3,000 sailors. Next, Sparta besieged Athens. When the great city-state surrendered, the end of Peloponnesian War had come. The Delian League was dissolved, and Sparta achieved hegemony in Greece, thanks in part to its former enemy, Persia.
5. The Battle of Cunaxa (September 3, 401 BC)
With Sparta enjoying supremacy in Greece, a sizable number of Greek hoplites, looking for adventure and employment, went over to the forces of a rebel leader within the Persian Empire, all the way by Babylon. The conflict, in which thousands of Greek mercenaries participated, pitted the rebel Cyrus the Younger against the Great King Artaxerxes II. In the decisive battle, Cyrus died, leaving his 10,000 surviving Greek mercenaries stranded in the heart of the Persian Empire. Eyewitness soldier / historian Xenophone recorded the odyssey back home, through miles of opposition. As Xenophon and his fellow Greeks battled their way through the Persian Empire, Xenophone came to a fateful conclusion that he wrote in his book about his exploits: “Persia belongs to the man who has the courage to attack it.”
4. The Battle of the Granicus (May 334 BC)
That man with the courage to attack Persia ended up being Alexander III the Great. When Alexander became King of Macedon, he inherited a position of unprecedented power and influence in Greece from his father. In the years after the battle of Cunaxa, Spartan hegemony had given way to Theban hegemony thanks to Thebes “Sacred Band” of warriors, but these too had eventually passed to another formidable army.
In this case, rather than have yet another city-state dominate Greece, the northern kingdom of Macedon crushed the Sacred Band of Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC,) in which Alexander participated. Philip became Hegemon of the Corinthian League for just about all Greek city-states, except for Sparta. As such, when Alexander became king of Macedon, he also led an army that included soldiers from a nearly-unified Greece. The Greeks still sought revenge for the burning of Athens over a century earlier, while some Macedonians claimed that Persia was behind Philip’s assassination.
As such, Alexander and his Greco-Macedonian force their way over into Asia Minor. The first critical battle of the expedition occurred at the Granicus River, near Troy. Alexander, seeing himself as a new Achilles, personally fought in the battle. After killing some Persians, Alexander was stunned by a blow delivered by Persian nobleman Spithridates. The Greco-Macedonian invasion of Persia nearly ended there, before Alexander could become Great, but his friend Cleitus cut off Spithridates’s arm before the Persian could deliver the coup de grâce.
In addition to Spithridates, the Persians lost some 3,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. Another 2,000 of their soldiers were captured.
3. The Battle of Issus (5 November 333 BC)
After Alexander’s triumph at the River Granicus, he gained control of half of Asia Minor. He followed up on this great victory by doing one of his most legendary actions. He reportedly came across the famed Gordian Knot, that only the future king of Asia could untangle. Alexander essentially cheated by severing the knot with his sword. Yet, he still had to actually conquer Asia. After his victories in Asia Minor, the Great King of Persia, Darius III, took Alexander seriously enough to lead his army to confront him. In a battle in which 40,850 Greco-Macedonians fought against 25,000 to 108,000 Persians, Alexander’s army sustained 7,000 losses, to Darius’s 20,000.
The battle was especially fierce; a key moment, seen in the mosaic above, has Alexander charging straight for Darius. As a result of this battle, Alexander now gained control of Southern Asia Minor, and also captured Darius’s wife and daughter (both named Stateira.) Alexander later married the younger Stateira, further cementing his claim to the Persian throne.
2. The Siege of Tyre (January – July 332 BC)
Rather than pursue Darius directly, Alexander next turned his attention to conquering the Persian coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, so as to prevent Darius from sending any ships that might harass Alexander and cut off his line of supply. A key strategic coastal city was the Phoenician city of Tyre. Through Winter, Spring, and even Summer of 332 BC, Alexander’s forces besieged the stubborn city.
In order to attack the city, which was partially located on an island, Alexander had to build a kilometer-long causeway to transport his forces. He also received over 100 ships from Cyprus that joined his cause. A combination of 223 galleys in total supported Alexander. Using brilliant technological feats, Alexander eventually captured the island, at a cost of 400 of his men. Tyre, by contrast, felt the full force of Alexander’s wrath. 8,000 Tyrians were killed in the siege or executed afterwards, while perhaps 30,000 civilians were enslaved. With this siege, Alexander now ruled the Levant, in addition to most of Asia Minor and Greece. He then continued southward and, using the same siege engines he used at Tyre, he besieged Gaza. In that siege, Alexander sustained 3,760 losses, while 19,000 Persian and Egyptian defenders succumbed. By the end of 332, Alexander had also become pharaoh of Egypt, where he also claimed to be the son of a God.
1. The Battle of Gaugamela (October 1, 331 BC)
After over a century of Greco-Persian conflicts, we finally come to the decisive battle of the Greco-Persian Wars. An undefeated Alexander the Great would meet Darius in the Great King’s last stand against the Macedonian invader. They met at Gaugamela, where up to 47,000 Greco-Macedonians would face a defending army of 50,000 to 1,000,000 men. It was one of the biggest battles in history and, at its end, Alexander lost 100 to 500 of his infantry and 1,000 of his cavalry. Darius, meanwhile, had lost an irreplaceable 40,000 to 90,000 in addition to maybe 300,000 captured … in ONE BATTLE!
As a result, Alexander won Babylon, half of Persia, and the rest of Mesopotamia that he had not previously conquered. Darius survived the battle only to be betrayed by a subordinate named Bessus. This man killed Darius, and declared himself the King Of Kings. Alexander was not pleased with this, and he hunted Bessus down, captured him, and had him executed in 329 BC.
With Bessus dead, Alexander was undisputed King of Macedon, Hegemon of the Corinthian League, Pharaoh of Egypt, King of Asia, and now Great King of Persia. Persepolis, the capital of Persia, had been burnt, possibly in revenge for Persia’s burning of Athens back in 480 BC.
Alexander’s influence did not truly disappear until nearly three hundred years later, in 30 BC, with the defeat and death of Ptolemaic Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII in 30 BC, a descendant of one of Alexander’s commanders. With her, ended the last remnants of the Greco-Macedonian civilization that battled, and eventually triumphed against, Persia for nearly two centuries
By Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, who has also written Banned From The Internet.