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Xerxes\' Invasion of Greece


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Analysis of the fifth-century BC invasion of Greece by Persian ruler Xerxes, including the military strategies, reasoning, and errors made by each side.

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Xerxes\' Invasion of Greece

  1. 1. Julia Muhlnickel<br />HISA100<br />Xerxes’ Invasion of Greece<br />October 29, 2010<br />Knowledge of the invasion of Greece by the Persian ruler Xerxes is widely based on the accounts written by Herodotus, which subjects scholars to the various biases of both Herodotus and his sources. Herodotus repeatedly affirms that he is not the source of the stories he writes, nor does he believe some of them. However, his emotions frequently make their way into his words, guiding readers through his perspectives. It is apparent from both Herodotus and many other life experiences that the reason a given opponent becomes victorious is often through their heart, determination, and sheer belief in for what they are fighting. Xerxes may have enlisted the world’s best armies and navies, but their lack of true heart is clearly shown in the books of Herodotus and in their downfall to Greece.<br />The idea for an invasion of Greece was not originally Xerxes’. His father, Darius, had previously demonstrated his power in Greece during the Ionian Revolts and battles at Naxos and Eretria. Defeated by Athens at the Battle of Marathon, it was first Darius’ will to conquer all of Greece, not Xerxes’. However, Darius’ death resulted in the ascension of Xerxes, who was not actively interested in fighting Greece. This is the first instance showing the lack of true will of the Persian leader to win the forthcoming war. Herodotus writes of Mardonius, “After much persistence he persuaded Xerxes to make the attempt” (373), showing that Xerxes’ motivation to fight in Greece came from the outside. Xerxes went on to explain his intentions through a speech to Persia’s leaders. He says, “Now I myself, ever since my accession, have been thinking how not to fall short of the kings who have sat upon this throne before me.” Xerxes saw the achievement of the conquest of Greece as a way to solidify his place in a great line of Persian kings, who have always behaved as conquerors. He also cites as reasons revenge for Athens’ previous insurrection and the creation of an empire over the whole of Asia and Europe. While Xerxes would stand to gain much upon conquering Greece, his motivations do not inspire the same kind of deeply emotional sheer will to fight the Greeks felt for their homeland. It can even be seen as a natural foreshadowing of the defeat of the Persian military.<br />The Persians’ plans and preparations for the crusade, as written by Herodotus, are incredible enough to remove any doubt of the utter force of their army and navy. With Herodotus estimating over five million men, his contemporary historians estimating in the millions, and modern historians estimating in the hundreds of thousands, the total military was extremely large. The navy was vast, with estimates consistent at around 1200 triremes, each carrying two hundred men. The number of Persians and their ships eventually proved to be as much of a downfall as it was a strength. While the number and technology of the Persian warships were greater than that of the Greeks, events never seemed to go as planned for them, reducing their importance to the overall Persian forces. Repeatedly, great numbers of ships were lost too easily. The necessary length of the voyage took its toll on the number of ships that could be used by Xerxes. The Athenians, with a tiny force compared to that of Xerxes, captured thirty ships at Artemisium. The Persians lost many of their ships that same night in a storm at Euboea. In the end, even with all its losses, the size of the fleet was one of the main reasons Persia lost the war. In the narrow waters around the island of Salamis, the Persian fleet became crowded, disorganized, and ineffective. Throughout the war it came to be seen that the only time the Persians could convincingly be called victors was on land, at the Battle of Thermopolyae – and this victory was only with the help of a Greek traitor. The naval fleet essentially accomplished very little in the larger sense of the war, and faltered when it most needed success.<br />Xerxes’ plan for invasion, just as the superiority of the navy, seemed sound in theory, but in reality also eventually failed. Most of the plans that had to be made were concerned with the supply of food and water along the treacherous route into Greece. Various places along the course of travel were designated as supply spots, where animals and grain would be kept in good supply and the troops could stop for nourishment on the journey. Completed over four years, the decisions on the route the forces would take included the construction of a canal through the isthmus at Mt. Athos. Darius’ fleet had tried to sail around Mt. Athos and was demolished in a storm, which convinced Xerxes to find another way around – or through – the region. In Herodotus’ view, the choice to build a canal was an ostentatious way of showing Xerxes’ power. Had Xerxes not been so eager to appear a great conqueror, the time and manpower spent digging the trench could have been used to train and become much better warriors. Another project, more practical than the canal, was the construction of pontoon bridges (Herodotus 383-5). Xerxes’ plans for entering Greece were very sound, but written histories fail to describe in detail any elaborate plan for actual warring, in contrast to the famous lifelong training of Spartan warriors and traditional Greek hoplite warfare. Without any real strategy for battle, the Greeks were able to easily position their dense phalanx to overcome the lightly armored Persians, who were equipped with shorter spears than the Greeks. The Persians also did not develop any strategy for battle in narrow locations, a weakness that the Greeks exploited and used in their defeat of the Persians. The Persian overconfidence in both their superiority and vast numbers left them unprepared for fighting an alliance of Greek city-states.<br />The three major battles of Xerxes’ invasion were at Thermopylae, Artemisium, and Salamis. Thermoplyae and Artemisium actually occurred over the same period of time, but Thermoplyae was fought on land and Artemisium at sea. These battles, as well as the defense of the Isthmus of Corinth, forced Xerxes to develop the quickest, most effective plan possible to defeat the Greeks. At Thermopylae, the Greek phalanx successfully repelled the various Persian armies sent by Xerxes to clear the path for the first two days of warfare (Herodotus 438). Xerxes even dispatched the 10,000 Immortals. By sending the most elite of his warriors, Xerxes was signaling that he needed his greatest forces to defeat the Greek army. After the Greek Ephialtes aided the Persians in outflanking the main path, they slaughtered the Greeks from the rear. Herodotus wrote that 20,000 Persians were killed in the fight; a small number relative to his estimates of the entire army, but a dent nonetheless and large in comparison to the number of Greek hoplites. After traveling through the pass at Thermoplyae, Xerxes and his troops took over and burned the cities of Boeotia. Although Thermoplyae was considered a Persian victory, it showed that the Greeks could inflict serious damage on the Persians on land, and Xerxes had to adjust to that fact. Combined with losses from Artemisium, the rest of the war would be affected by Thermopylae. Before the battle at Artemisium, a good number of Persian ships were damaged in a great storm, reducing the gap between the numbers of Persian and Greek ships, but still leaving the Greeks outnumbered. The Persians then sent out a fleet of ships to block any attempt at escape by the Greeks, which would later also be decimated by a storm. After three days of valiantly fighting the Persian ships, the Greeks had to retreat to the island of Salamis. Through defeat at Thermopylae and retreat at Artemisium, the Greeks left Attica open to Xerxes, who then commissioned the arson of Athens. Having taken hold of most of Greece, including the prized Athens, Xerxes considered the war a victory thus far. He did not resolve to change his battle tactics, but still had to fully defeat the Greek forces and take Peloponnesus. A group of Greek forces, mostly Peloponnese, had begun preparing a defense at the Isthmus of Corinth, which would prevent Xerxes from entering the Peloponnese on land. After these developments, it was necessary for Xerxes to win the war with a naval battle. This would be his best chance at forcing surrender by Greece. Themistocles was able to convince the Greeks to fight at Salamis as well as tricked Xerxes into fighting in the narrow strait there.<br />The outcome of Salamis was the climax of the invasion. As a result of Themistocles’ trick, the Persian fleet entered the narrow waters of Salamis and spent the night before the battle awake and searching for a possible Greek evacuation of the island (Herodotus 473). Fighting at Salamis turned out to be a mistake for the Persians, as the small area of water broke down the organization of the vast Persian navy and destroyed any battle tactics they would have had. Once Persian ships were captured or damaged, they were also in more danger than a Greek ship would have been, since the Persians did not know how to swim. Overall, the Greeks captured or sank enough Persian ships to force their retreat. Directly after the victory of the Greeks, Xerxes realized the danger of staying in Greece with the bridges at the Hellespont unguarded; if they were burnt, he would be trapped in Europe, possibly with no way of receiving supplies. Xerxes’ invasion of Greece therefore had to come to an end, and Mardonius convinced him to return home while Mardonius spent the winter in Europe with 300,000 troops who would resume the attack in the spring.<br />Herodotus’ presentation of Xerxes’ invasion is undoubtedly influenced by his own opinions. However, he repeatedly cautions that he is only a reporter of what he has been told, and often gives two differing versions of a story in order to more completely represent the event. It is inevitable that anyone who lived in a time or place anywhere near the events of the Persian invasion had some sort of bias towards one of the two sides. For a person such as Herodotus, writing The Histories as a completely impartial source would have been impossible. Historians also criticize his works for misrepresentation of the size of the Persian army. While Herodotus must have made some mistakes in his writings, he wrote what he believed to be true, not a mythical representation of it. He represented the Persian defeat similarly, as an inability on Xerxes’ part to place his army and navy in the best positions for victory possible. Herodotus was able to narrate the gradual breakdown of the Persian forces and show the ending point of their defeat.<br />From the beginning of the invasion, it seemed impossible that the Persians would fall to the disunited Greeks. Their army and navy seemed limitless, and their fear of the leader Xerxes motivated them to perform well. The odds of Xerxes’ force winning were very good at the start of the invasion. It was a combination of the devotion of the Greeks and the strategic mistakes of the Persians that prompted Xerxes’ return to Persia. Greece’s belief in the defense of its homeland proved more powerful than the sum of Persian forces.<br />Works Cited<br />Herodotus. The Histories. London: Penguin Books, 1996. <br />