The Greco-Persian Wars are a long, drawn out conflict filed with battles, on land or sea, political maneuvering, changing allegiances and backdoor dealing. Understanding the wars is not an easy task without prior knowledge of all the players involved, the geography of the region and the interests and ambitions of those leaders and generals. As in most events the beginning is the best place to start but not the beginning of the conflict. The beginning of the Achaemenids is the starting place of this conflict. In order to talk about them we’ll first need to mention the recent history in the Middle East and how it ties into Cyrus and his actions which led to the inevitable and wide-reaching conflict with the Greeks.
In the 7th century the Middle East was dominated by the juggernaut of the Assyrian Empire. Monstrous by modern standards, it reached into central Anatolia, the Levant, Cyprus and Egypt in the west, the Arabian Desert to the south, Cappadocia & Armenia to the north and parts of Susa and Media (regions of modern Iran) to the east. The capital was always in Assyria and because of this the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers formed the heart of the empire. This was an unprecedented size by any state up until this point in history. The Assyrians maintained it through a large standing army supported by an efficient bureaucracy and large amounts of tribute demanded by the state from its subservient regions. They collapsed after enough of their subjects joined together in a large revolt and managed to defeat the army and gain independence for themselves.
One of the rebelling groups was the Medes, a group of people who resided in Media and created a new empire from their region. The Median Empire was even larger than the Assyrian one although it focused more on Iran and land to the east of Iran. It ruled for over 100 years until Cyrus the Great began his wars. There are conflicting stories over how Cyrus took the throne but regardless of the exact information, a war was started and through a mutiny and several engagements Cyrus emerged victorious and took over the Median Empire. There is a point here I need to clarify. People often call Iran by its other name, Persia, however, thousands of years ago, the whole of Iran had not been united and people there were more defined by their regions. Media was roughly the northwest part of modern Iran while Persia was in the southwest. This is why the Achaemenid Empire is often referred to as the Persian Empire since the Persians were in control now. Over time the word Persia would become synonymous with Iran but at the time it was only a small, sub region.
Media was only the beginning of Cyrus’ achievements. An appetizer to the real accomplishment he would aim for. After Media he continued onward into the Lydian and Neo-Babylonian Empires, conquering both of them and creating the largest empire in the world to date, multiple times larger than the Assyrian Empire. At this point it now reached into the entirety of Anatolia, across the Middle East, up into the Caucasus, through Iran into Central Asia. As large as they were, they had now come into contact with a mind-numbing, new race of people who were unlike the previous peoples they’d overrun.
After Assyria was defeated by the Medes, the Lydian Empire began growing in western Anatolia. They came into conflict with the Medes as well as the Greeks and under King Croesus, the last of the Lydian kings, they had subdued the Greek cities in Ionia and Aeolia. After Cyrus conquered the Lydians he also conquered the Greeks in Asia to fully control Anatolia. This ended their independence and forced them to obey their new Persian emperors. This is what created the conflict which would come to be known as the Greco-Persian Wars
Greek history is just as long as the events that had been taking place in the Middle East but had developed in a sociological contrast. In Asia, the trend had been to create kingdoms and rule as king. The Assyrians, Medes, Lydians and Persians all had kings; even tribes had leaders, some of whom the Persians recognized as local kings.
The Greeks also had kings but not so many as their neighbors had. Greeks were accustomed to choosing a government for themselves and usually picked between a democracy, an oligarchy or a tyranny. In a democracy the citizens would be elected to offices, make the laws and govern the country. In an oligarchy a small, elite class would control the government. A tyranny was a bit different. Tyrants weren’t chosen but often launched coups to assume power and afterwards usually required some consent from the population to continue their rule. They could just as easily be overthrown. This is the difference from their Asiatic neighbors; the Greeks chose a tyrant or chose an assembly. They didn’t enjoy being told to accept a tyrant. When Cyrus seized their cities he installed tyrants in each city, an assortment of little kings, to control the territory for the Persians.
The Greeks resented this treatment but did accept it for a time. Cyrus had to face an odd issue in the Greeks since they did not simply bow to an aristocracy or king out of blind loyalty. Despite the hostility and animosity towards this foreign power, the Greeks in Asia remained in the Persian Empire. However, while they were in the empire, they were not absorbed into it. The Greeks were very proud of their way of life, so much so that outsiders were referred to as barbarians. In essence, to be Greek was to reject the disheveled outsiders and embrace the eloquence and refinement of the Greek language and way of life. Multiple Greek authors refer to the Persians, including the king, as barbarians. The Persians weren’t exactly hut-dwelling, filthy nomads. They had crafted an excellent civilization with palaces, cities, wide farm estates, a complex communication network and thorough bureaucracy to handle rule over the many peoples they oversaw. Yet, they were not Greek speakers. Now imagine that these proud, liberal Greeks are being ruled by a king. Not only are you now being ruled by a king, you’re being ruled by a foreign king 1,000 kilometers away. A person with a different language, a different culture, a different religion and no respect for your liberty. The antagonism this would brew could only lead to conflict and when it finally broke out in Anatolia it would not merely be a simple revolt but a major conflict involving people across Asia and Europe in a war of civilization. For freedom or for death, the struggle would continue to its end.
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