Introduction to the Greco-Persian Wars Pt.1

Greetings and welcome to my first article! I hope to happily discuss a wide range of topics throughout history for the pleasure of my audience, come they may from all corners of the world. To kick it off I’m diving into the Greco-Persian Wars. As an introduction to these wars I’ll explain quite a lot of history fast in order to give you guys a general picture of this part of the world right before these wars started. This will expand from the Greek colonization of the Mediterranean to Anatolia and how it relates to the Greeks and their neighbors, the Persians.

Now this war was looooong. It lasted from 499-449 BCE and wasn’t one long war but several related conflicts, which I’ll separate because they take a long time to explain independently as well. It started off as a dispute between the Greeks in Anatolia and the Achaemenid Empire. Anatolia is a historical region of modern Turkey including all Asian portions up to an imaginary line between the Artvin Province at the edge of the Black Sea and the Gulf of Alexandretta along the border with modern Syria. This land was also called Asia Minor. The Achaemenid Empire was a Persian empire that vastly dominated a significant portion of the world and was the largest empire to ever exist at the time but we’ll get to them shortly. Anatolia was just another part of their empire, but, so how are the Greeks involved?

See, everyone today knows the country of Greece, officially the Hellenic Republic since Hellas is the name Greeks called themselves, in a vague nature for its accomplishments and contributions to Western civilization but the actual society and course of their civilization was quite complicated. During the Archaic Age (8th century BCE-480 BCE), which is an entire other chapter of Greek history, centralized governments (mainly kingdoms) had collapsed, leaving cities with a hard independence streak. But since many cities failed to create large, new kingdoms Greece now had hundreds of towns that essentially were independent countries (albeit with the ability for larger towns to influence smaller ones). As you may imagine, this created intense competition between towns: economically, militarily and culturally. There were regional powers like Corinth and Thebes but Athens and Sparta would become the major Greek players. 

What set Greek culture apart from other civilizations was their colonization of other territories. The Greeks often founded cities around the Mediterranean in this period, largely for the economic opportunities in new lands with different resources. The cities usually had almost complete independence so they often were able to begin gaining supremacy in their part of the world. Some examples would be Syracuse, Chersonesus, Byzantium, Miletus, Taras, Massalia and Cyrene. The first Greek colonies were throughout the areas around Greece, the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea and the western shores of Anatolia. The Aegean Sea is the sea between Greece and Turkey while the Black Sea is bordered by southern Ukraine, eastern Romania & Bulgaria, northern Turkey, southwestern Russia and western Georgia. Anatolia itself had old and wealthy cities all along the coast, some of which were older than native Greek cities.

This vigor, this desire, to grab the untamed world and “civilize” it, this was not uniquely Greek, but few people could match this. Cicero, the great orator of the late Roman Republic, commented on this spirit, saying, “It were as though a Greek fringe has been woven about the shores of the barbarians.” This was true for a while, but the world had more than barbarians to offer. With growth and expansion, major Greek populations soon bordered different kingdoms and republics. The main ones were Rome, Carthage and Persia. Even though the Greek wars with these other powers were interesting in themselves, the Persian-Greek antagonism would have major consequences in world history. New empires were growing and the Greeks were in the way. So how did this cause the Greco-Persian Wars? Location location location. We turn to Anatolia, the genesis of the conflict, to see why. 

In western Anatolia there were three general regions of Greek cities: Aeolis in the northwest, Ionia in the central west and Doris in the southwest. Each one was a separate cultural area since the Greeks culturally divided themselves between each region in Greece and Ionia was similar to the Athenians. Ionia was a region of independent cities loosely associated through their mutual culture and even though they never formed an official league (an alliance of Greek cities) they did cooperate regularly. Unfortunately this was never a major uniting force, leaving them to deal with their neighbors as they saw fit. Their main one to the east was the Lydian kingdom. Next time we’ll delve into Lydia, Persia and how their actions will come to affect the larger Greek world.

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