Ancient History & Civilisation

APPENDIX E The Persians in Thucydides

©1. When Cyrus the Great overthrew the kingdom of the Medes in 550 B.C. he changed what had been a Median empire into a Persian one. Since both Medes and Persians came from the same region—Iran—and Median nobles continued to be powerful within the empire of the Persians, Greeks often used the terms “Mede” or “Medes” interchangeably with “Persian” or “Persians.” Those Greeks who took the Persian side in any conflicts were said to have “Medized” or to be guilty of “Medism.”

©2. Cyrus and his successors vigorously expanded their empire until, under Darius I, who ruled from 521 to 486 B.C., Persian dominion reached from Thrace in southeastern Europe to parts of India, and from southern Egypt to the Caucasus. Contemporary Greeks referred to the Persian ruler simply as “the King,” there being no doubt about which monarch was thus signified. To govern so vast an empire, the King’s authority had to be delegated to governors (called satraps) of provinces (satrapies) who, in turn, exercised power through subordinate officials or local dynasts. The system worked well when provincial governors, who were usually monitored by agents of the King, were loyal to him, but when central authority was weak, or when problems occurred in the royal succession, they could be tempted to act independently or even to revolt. Satrapies were linked by imperial highways and a royal messenger post whose speed and efficiency amazed the contemporary world. Trade was facilitated by common official languages and a universal Persian gold currency. To a Greek of the fifth century, even a sophisticated one whose worldview was not entirely limited to the borders and neighbors of his polis (city-state), Persia seemed immense in size, in wealth, and in power. It was largely through contact with Persia that the Greeks became acquainted with the accumulated knowledge of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and even India, so that it is not an accident that most of the first Greek philosophers, poets, and historians came from the cities of Asia Minor that had fallen under Lydian and later Persian rule. But to the Persians, the Greeks must have seemed a troublesome, if peripheral, set of hardly civilized peoples with strange customs and enough military prowess to be dangerous—although fortunately self-neutralized by wars they constantly waged among themselves.

Egypt, Caucasus: Appendix E Map, locator; Thrace: Appendix E Map, AY.

©3. In 546 B.C., Cyrus conquered Lydia in western Asia (Asia Minor), and thereby succeeded to the dominion over many Greek cities that had been earlier subdued and made tributary by the Lydians. Almost fifty years later, in 499 B.C., the Greeks of Ionia (in Asia Minor) revolted against Persian rule and requested their fellow Greeks to help them. Sparta refused, but Athens and Eretria (a city on Euboea), sent small squadrons of ships to assist them. Troops from their contingents joined a combined Greek assault against Sardis, the former capital of the kingdom of Lydia and now the seat of a Persian satrap. The Greeks captured the lower city and burned it, but thereafter Persian forces defeated them on both land and sea (the fighting spread as far away as Cyprus) and finally put down the Greek rebellion by 494.

©4. To punish the affront at Sardis, Darius sent a punitive expedition into Greece in 490 B.C., which, after sacking Eretria and carrying off its inhabitants, was defeated by the Athenians at Marathon in Attica (1.18.1; 1.73.4; 2.34.5). A decade later, a second and much larger Persian invasion of Greece was launched by Darius’ successor Xerxes, who led the combined land and sea expedition in person, and clearly hoped to add the states of Greece permanently to his empire. The Persians crossed the Hellespont, advanced unhindered through Thrace and Thessaly, and met their first serious Greek opposition at the narrow pass of Thermopylae. Here a small Greek force fought effectively and checked the entire Persian army for several days; when it was finally outflanked, most of the Greeks withdrew, but a few, led by the Spartan king Leonidas with a unit of three hundred Spartan hoplites (see Appendix F), remained in the pass and fought gloriously until surrounded and annihilated. Xerxes then advanced through Boeotia—which Medized—crossed into Attica, and reached Athens itself. He occupied the city and destroyed it, but he captured few of the inhabitants because, in an unprecedented step, the Athenians had left their lands and hearths and evacuated by sea to the island of Salamis and other nearby parts of Greece (1.18.2; 1.73.4). Shortly thereafter, the combined Greek fleet, inspired by the leadership and stratagems of the Athenian general Themistocles, inflicted such a crushing defeat on the Persian navy at Salamis that Xerxes retired with what remained of his fleet to Persian territory. In the following year, the Persian army also withdrew from Greece after it was defeated at Plataea by the largest allied force ever assembled by the Greek city-states under the command of the Spartan Pausanias. Finally, the Persian fleet was again smashed by the Greeks at Mycale (1.89.2) on the coast of Ionia. The story of these events (and of many others) is told by Herodotus.

Lydia: Appendix E Map, AY.

Eretria on Euboea: Appendix E Map, BX.

Sardis: Appendix E Map, BY.

Cyprus: Appendix E Map, locator.

Marathon in Attica: Appendix E Map, BX.

Hellespont, Thrace. Thessaly, Thermopylae: Appendix E Map, AX. Thucydides refers to the great Persian invasion at 1.18.2, and to the battle of Thermopylae at 4.36.3

Boeotia: Appendix E Map, BX. The Plataeans remind the Spartans of the “Medism” of the Thebans in 3.56.4 and the Thebans in turn explain their defection in 3.62.

Salamis: Appendix E Map, BX. Thucydides recounts Themistocles’ role as both advocate for the construction of an Athenian fleet (1.14.3) and as a wily restorer of Athens’ walls (1.90-3); he evaluates him as a statesman and describes his ultimate flight from Athens and reception by the Persian king in 1.135-38.

Plataea: Appendix E, Map BX. See 2.71.2-4, where the Plataeans seek to halt the invading Spartans by invoking the memory of Pausanias’ victory over the Persians at their city, and the oaths taken later by the Spartans in appreciation of Plataea’s bravery in that struggle.

Pausanias’ subsequent arrogance, his alleged final treason, and his death are described in 1.94-95 and 1.128-34.



©5 Thucydides takes up the historical narrative after the Persian withdrawal from mainland Greece in a major digression in Book 1, beginning at chapter 1.89 and ending at 1.118. In these twenty-nine chapters he describes many but not all of the significant events that mark the growth of Athenian power in the Aegean in the fifty years (479-31) between the defeat of Xerxes’ expedition and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. He briefly mentions, for example, the outstanding victory of the Athenians and their allies over Persian forces on both land and sea that took place about 467 B.C. at the Eurymedon River on the south coast of Asia Minor, but he says nothing at all about the very important peace between Athens and Persia negotiated in 449 by the Athenian Callias at the court of the Persian king. Yet that peace left Athens free to strengthen her power over the members of the Delian League and to turn that alliance further into an Athenian-controlled naval empire; it also ratified the withdrawal of Persian rule from the coastlands of western Asia Minor, and in effect ceded that region to the control of Athens. Finally, it left Athens free to confront Sparta, and it is not impossible that the Persian king realized, even at this early date, that his interest could best be served if the two leading states of Greece were to exhaust themselves in a struggle for dominance.

©6. The failure of Thucydides to mention the so-called Peace of Callias (or some treaty between Athens and Persia) either in the text at 1.112 or somewhere else, has led some scholars to question his reliability and others to infer that the historian had not yet worked out the earlier Greco-Persian diplomatic background to the struggle before he died. There can be no doubt that Thucydides had gathered much evidence concerning Persian diplomacy. He was certainly aware of the diplomatic exchanges between Pausanias and Artabazus, the Persian governor at Dascylium (1.129.1), and he was informed about the negotiations between the fugitive Themistocles and King Artaxerxes that took place soon after the accession of the latter in 464 (1.137.3). Thucydides also knew that even before hostilities broke out, the Spartans had intended to ask for Persian assistance against Athens (1.82.1; 2.7.1), that they sent at least one diplomatic mission for that purpose (2.67.1), and that on at least one occasion the Great King responded to their overtures by expressing his willingness to listen (4.50.1).

©7. Persian intervention in Aegean affairs did not become significant until after the crippling failure in 413 of the Athenian expedition to Sicily, and Athens’ decision to support Amorges, the rebel governor of Caria. As Thucydides describes it, in 412 the two Persian governors—Tissaphernes (8.5.5) at Sardis and Pharnabazus (8.6.1) at Dascylion—began to compete with each other in obedience to a command from the King to conclude an alliance with the Spartans. The Persians expected that with their assistance the Spartans would drive the Athenians out of the region and enable the Persian governors to regain the tribute from the cities which the Athenians denied them; Tissaphernes also hoped that the Spartans would help to destroy Amorges (8.5.5).

Mycale, Ionia: Appendix Map E, BY. Herodotus (who lived c. 484-25) is the author of a major history of the wars between the Persians and Greeks that includes much other interesting information. Thucydides criticizes him without naming him in 1.20. See introduction, II, i, ii, v and IV.ii.

This section or excursus is often called the “Pentecontaetia” although the period it describes does not exactly cover fifty years. Despite Thucydides’ treatment, there is much scholarly controversy over the detailed chronology of this period.

Eurymedon River: Appendix E Map, locator.

We lack definitive proof that this treaty really existed, but there is much circumstantial evidence. Thucydides provides indirect evidence for a treaty between Athens and Persia in 8.56.4, when he describes Alcibiades’ demands that the King should have the right “to build ships and sail along his own coast wherever and with as many as he please.” Why would these freedoms have been demanded unless they had been previously prohibited by treaty? See also Appendix B, The Athenian Empire, ©8.

Dascylium: Appendix E Map, AY.

Caria: Appendix E Map, BY. Athens’ relationship with Amorges is discussed in note 8.5.5b.

©8. In 412, after the annihilation of Athens’ expedition in Sicily, Sparta responded to Persian solicitation and Asian Greek entreaties by establishing a fleet in Ionia, but Spartan commanders found it difficult to maintain their ships on Persian financial support and supplies. Despite their success in capturing and delivering Amorges, the Spartan relationship with Tissaphernes did not run smoothly. The Persian governor turned out to be an unreliable and stingy paymaster, which led to long and acrimonious disputes over his failure to supply sufficient pay for the sailors (8.29; 8.45.2-6; 8.78; 8.80.1; 8.83.3). Three successive draft treaties between Sparta and Persia had to be negotiated in 412 and 411 before agreement was reached (8.18; 8.37; 8.58). The Spartans rejected the first two of them as unacceptable; their officer Lichas objecting particularly to the Great King’s implied claim to all lands Persia had formerly held, which would have required Sparta to recognize a Persian right to govern northern and central Greece (8.43.4; 8.52). Moreover, Tissaphernes had to contend with a potentially dangerous division of opinion at Sparta itself between those who proposed sending troops and ships to him in Ionia, and others who wanted instead to dispatch those forces to Pharnabazus, his rival in the Hellespont (8.6.2). It is not surprising, then, that Tissaphernes may have come to feel easier in his dealings with the renegade Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades than with the blunt Spartans (cf. 8.46.5).

©9. When in 411 a desperate Athens tried to renew her relationship with Persia, Alcibiades (8.47.2) and Pisander (8.53.3) argued, not quite disingenuously, that an oligarchic form of government would prove more acceptable to the Great King and to Tissaphernes (8.53.3). It is clear, however, that Persia cared less about the Athenians’ form of government than about Athenian activity in the eastern Aegean, and the later restoration of democracy at Athens produced no perceptible impediment to diplomatic dealings between them.

©10. Perhaps a more important development, if Thucydides reports the affair accurately, is that Alcibiades’ advice to Tissaphernes may have originated what was to become Persia’s new long-term policy toward Greece: that of managing her support so as to prevent either side from achieving victory (8.46.1-4). It is interesting to note that this policy was not followed by the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger, whose steadfast and generous assistance to the Spartans after 407 permitted the Peloponnesian fleet to recover from successive reverses until they were finally able to inflict a decisive defeat on the Athenian navy at Aegospotami in 405. Indeed, Thucydides, in a late passage written after the end of the war (2.65.12), characterized Cyrus’ aid as the one cause of Sparta’s success. Aegospotami led to the complete surrender of Athens and to a Spartan hegemony over Greece that proved unfavorable to Persian interests. So when Persia decided to limit Sparta’s power, she financed an alliance of Greek states (including a democratic Athens) to oppose Sparta on land, and used her fleet, commanded by the Athenian Conon (see 7.31.4), to defeat the Spartan fleet at Cnidus in 394. Later, with Persian approval, Conon helped the Athenians to complete new Long Walls and to refortify Piraeus, thus restoring Athens to independence from Sparta.

See 8.28.2; Amorges established himself at Iasus in Caria (Appendix E Map, BY), where he was captured by the Peloponnesians, who also sacked the city and ransomed the inhabitants to replenish their financial resources.

©11. Ever since the peace of 449, the Aegean had been essentially a frontier problem for Persia—one of many frontier problems—and so it remained even in the time of Alcibiades’ intrigues with Tissaphernes in 411. But Persia’s policy in the region, which could be characterized as passive from 449 to 411, became more aggressive and interventionist thereafter. In the following decades, having learned from Prince Cyrus’ error, she became adept at maneuvering politically among the Greeks, manipulating their governments, and keeping them divided into rival alliances so that, exhausted by constant warfare, they would pose no threat to herself. Finally, in 387 B.C., Persia dictated what was called the King’s Peace, which ratified her reestablished control over the Greek cities of Asia Minor and effectively protected her from Greek attack for more than forty years.


Aegospotami: Appendix E Map, AY.

Cnidus: Appendix E Map, BY.

Piraeus: Appendix E Map, BX.

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