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To what extent were the Persians responsible for their own defeat in the
Persian Wars?
To a considerable extent, the Persians were responsible for their own defeat in the wars of
490 and 480-79 BC. Their commanders made crucial mistakes at Marathon and Salamis that
caused their forces to be routed by the Greeks. Nevertheless, those defeats would not have
been possible without the superior equipment of the Greeks, the quality of their leadership,
their unity and sense of purpose, and their knowledge of the country’s peculiar terrain.
When Darius’ army reached Greece in 490 BC, it outnumbered the Greeks by three to one.
However, thanks to the quick thinking and persuasive power of the Athenian general
Miltiades, the Greeks were able to block its advance at Marathon.
Having fought with the Persians in Thrace, Miltiades knew that their equipment was
inferior to that of his own troops. The Greek hoplites were equipped with bronze armour,
bronze grieves and a bronze helmet. They also carried a sword, a spear and a bronze or
wooden shield. The Persians, by contrast, had very little armour and only wicker shields.
They relied instead on their archers and cavalry to destroy the enemy. It was for this reason
that Miltiades ordered his forces to hold the high, forested ground, where the Persian
cavalry could not be deployed.
Both sides faced off against each other for several days, with neither willing to strike first
and give away the advantage. Finally, Miltiades ordered his forces to attack. Herodotus’
account does not tell us why he took this risk, but the fact that it makes no mention of the
Persian cavalry in the ensuing battle suggests that Miltiades might have taken advantage of
a tactical error on the Persians’ part. Victor Ehrenburg suggests that the Persian
commander, Datis, might have sent his cavalry by ship to capture Athens once he realised
that Miltiades was not budging from his position. A Byzantine source called the Suda hints at
this. Another possibility is that the Persians’ horses were grazing at the time and not ready
for battle. Either way, the decision to put the cavalry out of action was a crucial mistake, and
was at least partly responsible for the defeat that followed.
The other reason the Persians lost the battle was Miltiades’ tactical brilliance. When the
Greeks got to within a kilometer and a half of the Persians, he ordered that the centre of his
line be weakened and the flanks reinforced. He then directed his troops to run towards the
Persian line, to minimise the impact of the Persian archers. As the battle raged, the Persians
pushed the Greek centre back, inadvertently allowing themselves to be encircled by the
Greek flanks. Miltiades now ordered those flanks to close in on the Persians, trapping them
in a killing zone. Those Persians that could do so broke and ran – some back to their ships,
others into the nearby swamp where they drowned. 6,400 Persians died on the battlefield
that day; countless others died in the swamp. The Greeks lost just 201 men.
Hence the Persian defeat was at least partly the result of their own tactical error – denying
themselves the benefit of their key strike weapon, their cavalry.
When the Persians returned to Greece in 480 BC, they came with a far greater force and a
better strategy to secure victory. This invasion was by land and sea, with the navy
shadowing the army and keeping it supplied.
The plan worked well for the Persians up until their arrival at Salamis, except for the loss
of some ships in two inopportune storms. Xerxes had ravaged Attica, captured Athens, and
now he had the Greek navy bottled up in the narrow straits between Salamis and the
mainland. The Greek ships could not stay in the straits indefinitely. All Xerxes had to do was
wait for them to emerge, then his numerically superior fleet could destroy them. However,
the Great King could not wait. According to A.T. Olmstead, he had come to Greece to
achieve a “spectacular victory”, and was hungry to launch an attack. This gave Themistocles
his opportunity. He realised that the smaller, more maneuverable Greek ships would fare
better in the straits, so he set out to deceive Xerxes. He sent a trusted slave into the Persian
camp, claiming that the Greek navy was in disarray and was planning to abandon its
position. Xerxes believed the story, and sent his Egyptian squadron around the south of
Salamis to block the Greek navy’s escape. He then ordered the bulk of his fleet into the
Expecting the Greek navy to be retreating, the Persians were taken by surprise then
surrounded. In the ensuing battle they lost over 200 triremes. The Greeks lost only 40.
It was now that Xerxes made his second fatal mistake. He was so incensed by the defeat at
Salamis that he executed some of the Phoenician captains of his fleet. This incensed the
remaining Phoenician and Egyptian captains, and they sailed their ships home. According to
Olmstead, it was this as much as the Battle of Salamis that deprived Xerxes of his fleet.
There would be no attack on the Peloponnese now, so Xerxes decided to return to Persia.
He left Mardonius behind with part of the army, to make a land invasion the following year.
This would be very difficult without the support of the navy, as the assault would have to be
made across the Isthmus of Corinth, which was heavily fortified.
The Greeks did not wait for Mardonius to attack; instead they marched out to face him at
Plataea. Again, the Persians outnumbered the Greeks, and should have been able to use
their cavalry to great effect in the favourable terrain. But as at Marathon, the Greeks were
able to attack at a time when the Persian cavalry was unavailable. Their commander,
Pausanias, ordered a charge, and in the ensuing mayhem Mardonius was slain. The Persians
broke and ran, and were slaughtered by the Greeks. Xerxes’ dream of conquest had ended.
In many ways, the Persians were architects of their own defeat. Although their
preparations were meticulous and their forces vastly larger than those of the Greeks, their
tactics and weapons were inferior. They also had less cohesion as an army, and less
motivation than the Greeks. More than anything, though, their leadership was inferior.
Miltiares was a far better tactician than Datis, while Xerxes and Mardonius were no match
for Themistocles and Pausanias.