This week we looked at Persia’s expansion in Europe under Darius as they crossed the Hellespont into Greece. Why did they do this? I think there are a variety of possibilities.
- We talked before about the ‘Burden of Cyrus.’ His extraordinary accomplishments made Persia a world power. However, this legacy could be a burden as well as a gift. Both with Cambyses and Darius we see this ‘need’ to do something grand that Cyrus did not do, something that would allow them to leave their own mark on Persia. For Cambyses, this took the form of the conquest of Egypt. For Darius one could argue, it took the form of conquering Greece. One needs only look at how childhood stars often fare in their adult lives to see the problems of too much success too quickly.
- The answer could be simpler. Expansion may erase current enemies but it usually creates new ones. The Aegean Sea may simply have been the ‘next’ enemy for Persia given their previous expansion through Asia Minor.
- A more obvious and practical reason may have been Athens’ support for rebellions against Persia amongst “Greek” cities in Asia Minor. Though this support amounted to little more than a token gesture, Darius may have felt than any slight to Persian power needed dealt with. If this story is true, it has similarities to Emperor Claudius’ decision to invade Britain (Britain may have been giving aid — in the barest sense of the term — to conquered Gauls) during his reign in Rome.
- Herodotus records a few stories that suggest that Darius may have had personal motivations for conquering Greece involving a personal attendant of his who was Greek. The stories may or may not be true, but they might have a ring of truth. It is not unknown for kings or country’s to act at least in part with this kind of motivation.
We wanted to realize, however, that expansion across the Aegean would be a different kind of expansion than the Persians were used to. Almost the entirety of their empire was land based. Anyone can walk. Not everyone can sail. Their expansion overseas would mean the creation of a whole wing of their empire. Embarking on the sea would put them in a position where they would need a strong presence but have little experience. In contrast, most Greek city-states grew up on the water. Persia would still be able to muster an overwhelming advantage in raw manpower. For most city-states this would be enough. But as we shall see, not for all.
We looked at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., and what it revealed about Persia. Persia’s defeat at Marathon hardly spelled doom for Persia, but it did demonstrate their weaknesses, and perhaps, the fact that they had finally stretched out their imperial arm too far. The map below shows them coming right up against classical Greece at this time:
Persia was, in general, less oppressive and more tolerant than previous empires. They provided economic advantage and security. But being part of Persia did not come with any sort of identity. One might argue that Persia was all head, but no heart, and on some level people need inspired. They possessed huge armies, but the majority of those armies had conquered troops that probably felt little reason to fight for Persia. Thankfully for Persia, most of the time their huge numbers meant that they often did not have to fight at all. In fact, Persia’s absolute requirement for military service for all eligible males shows them at their least tolerant. When one father asked King Xerxes to exempt his youngest son to stay on the family farm, Xerxes executed his son, hacked his body in two, and had his departing forces march between the pieces of his son’s body as they left the city. They allowed for no exception to their ‘No Exceptions’ policy.
At Marathon, the Athenians gained a tactical advantage by focusing their attack on the non-Persian members of Persia’s force. The Persian force collapsed quickly as large portions of their force beat a hasty retreat. They may have been willing to follow orders and march where told. Why would they risk more than that? What were they fighting for? On a variety of occasions, Herodotus speaks of the bravery and skill of the purely Persian troops. But the conquered and incorporated troops proved to be a hindrance rather than an asset.
I also think that the Athenian victory was part psychological. They ran at the Persians — they actually attacked! Herodotus hints at the shock the Persians must have felt under such a circumstance. In Greece, Persia would meet a people who refused to accept their ‘deal.’ The fact that Persia needed to build a navy to deal with this threat put them in an unusual position, like fish out of water. We will see in a few months how and why the Greeks defeated Persia when their clash grows into something much more than a skirmish.
“Anyone can walk. Not everyone can sail.” – I like this part. It might also explain the later dominance of the British Empire, about 2,000 years later?
Thanks so much for your thoughts. Yes, indeed it might, and Mahan’s classic work adds support to this. But to be fair, not everyone agrees. Chester Starr wrote “The Influence of Sea Power on Ancient History” as a rejoinder of sorts to Mahan’s theory, arguing that “boots on the ground” made the most difference.