Ancient Greece and Persia: Foes, Friends, or Both?

The Ancient Greek city-states and the Persian Empire had a complicated relationship that extended beyond the Greco-Persian Wars.

Feb 21, 2024By Laken Bonatch, MA History and MS Archives Management (in-progress), BA History & Classics,

ancient greece persia relationship


The Greco-Persian Wars have long stuck in the minds of those who study the ancient world. Although this series of battles had a significant impact on ancient Greece, including its history, literature, and identity, there is more to the relationship between ancient Greece and the Persian Empire. Furthermore, we only have the Greek perspective on this relationship, so it’s important to keep that in mind when discussing it. This article will examine the relationship between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire before, during, and after the wars.


Greco-Persian Relations Before the 5th Century

Red-figured hydria, artist unknown, 400-380 BCE. Source: British Museum, London


Despite what more popular depictions of the Greco-Persian Wars may say, the relationship between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire was not entirely antagonistic, especially before the 5th century BCE. The Greek city-states and the Persian Empire had a strong trade relationship, leading to the spread of goods, clothing styles (see above image), and art through mainland Greece. Before the Greco-Persian Wars, it was a sign of power for upper-class Greeks, particularly Athenians, to emulate Persian dress and customs.


In addition to a trade relationship, the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire also had a political relationship. There were official envoys from Greek city-states that would be received in one of the capitals of the Persian Empire. For example, although this is after the Greco-Persian Wars, Antalcidas was a Spartan politician and envoy to Persia in the 4th century. Persian kings often invited Greek artists and orators to their courts, with the Athenian tragedian Euripides being one such example.


Stater of Ionian Revolt, artist unknown, 498-494 BCE. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


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Another factor that complicated the relationship between Greece and Persia was the status of the Greek city-states in Ionia. Ionia was a region on present-day Turkey’s coast with Greek colonies. The Lydians had initially conquered the colonies in around 560 BCE. However, Cyrus the Great eventually took down the Lydians and brought the area under the Persian Empire. From then on, the Ionian cities would become restless Persian subjects leading to the Ionian Revolt in the early 5th century.


Relief from palace of Darius, artist unknown. Source: British Museum, London


The Ionian Revolt (499-493 BCE) is seen as the unofficial beginning of the Greco-Persian Wars by many scholars, as it involved the military rebellions of multiple Greek areas of Ionia against the Persian Empire. The areas that rebelled included Aeolis, Cyprus, Caria, Miletus, Naxos, and more. The revolt lasted around six years, beginning in 499 and ending in 493 with a Persian victory. Although the Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria offered their support, they were unable to substantially help Miletus and the rest of the revolting regions. In fact, their intervention placed them on Darius I’s (Darius the Great) radar.


Darius’ Invasion of Greece

Monument to Marathon, artist unknown, ~460 BCE. Source: Institute of Classical Studies


In 492, only one year after the end of the Ionian Revolt, Darius I began an invasion of Greece, starting with territories in the Aegean. Before making it to mainland Greece, the Persian military conquered Macedon and some islands off the coast of Greece. By the time the fleet landed and began marching toward Athens, it was 490. At this point, the only major battle in mainland Greece during this invasion occurred: the Battle of Marathon.


Athenian hoplites cut off the Persian military’s path to Athens and fended them off in this battle. Most of the information for Marathon (and the second invasion, as well) comes from Herodotus, a Greek historian. Herodotus’ account describes a much smaller Athenian army (in addition to some forces from Plataea) taking on the large Persian military in an attempt to prevent them from capturing Athens.


Terracotta Nolan, artist unknown, 480-470 BCE. Source: MET, New York


The Persian fleet still attempted to sail to the undefended city, but the Athenian military hurried back and intercepted them, forcing them to sail back to Persia.


It was also in this battle that the famous origin of the marathon race came about. Before the battle, one Athenian named Pheidippides was tasked with running to Sparta from Marathon to seek aid for the battle, which he did. Sparta could not make it in time due to a religious festival. Pheidippides had to run back to Marathon within only a few days, and after the battle, he was tasked with running another 42.195 km (the exact distance of the Marathon race) back to Athens to inform the city of the victory. Pheidippides successfully made it to Athens, announced that “we won”, and died.


The victory at Marathon ended the first invasion of Greece, which, in reality, was a campaign in the Aegean and the northern countries above Greece, with only one battle occurring on the mainland. Although this invasion has often been seen as a failure for the Persian Empire, they conquered many territories and re-subjugated Thrace before their loss at Marathon.


Xerxes’ Invasion of Greece

Jar with inscriptions of Xerxes, artist unknown, 485-465 BCE. Source: MET, New York


Ten years after the Battle of Marathon, Darius’ son, Xerxes I, began the second invasion of Greece in 480. According to Herodotus, he wished to finish his father’s campaign, but that is only one guess as to why Xerxes decided to resume the invasion. Once again, Herodotus is the main source for this invasion, and many aspects of it are even more exaggerated than Darius’ invasion.


Unlike the first invasion of Greece, where Athens was the only city-state that faced off against the Persian Empire, the second invasion brought more of the Greek city-states together. Although the Athenian role is still emphasized in Herodotus’ works, multiple cities formed an alliance to fight the Persian military. The invasion lasted only one year, but there were multiple notable battles that occurred in these twelve months.


Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David, 1814. Source: Louvre, Paris


After the Persian fleet crossed the Hellespont and landed on mainland Greece, they first encountered Greek forces at Thermopylae, a pass that was defended by Sparta and its allies until the Greek forces were defeated. After Thermopylae, the Persian army marched to Athens and ransacked the city, burning the Acropolis and destroying religious sanctuaries. This act was one of the most significant events in the 5th century for Athens, and it would greatly impact the relationship between the Persian Empire and the city-state.


Bay of Salamis drawing by William Simpson. Source: British Museum, London


After the sack of Athens, the city-state met the Persian forces in a naval battle at Salamis, giving the Athenians a victory and contributing to their naval pride. The final major battle happened nearly a year later at Plataea with a large alliance of Greek forces from Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Megara, and other city-states. At this point, Xerxes had returned to Persia, leaving his general Mardonius in charge of the remaining campaign. After Mardonius’ loss at Plataea, the Greco-Persian Wars are seen as over by some. However, the conflict would continue in the Aegean and beyond for around three more decades, ending around 449 with the Peace of Callias (whose date is debated).


Ancient Representations

Bust of Herodotus, artist unknown, 2nd CE. Source: MET, New York


As already mentioned, the relationship between the Persian Empire and the Greek city-states was not always hostile. However, during the 5th century, there was a notable shift in how Persia was represented in art and discussed in literature, which evidently ties in with the beginning of the Greco-Persian Wars.


Due to a lack of primary sources, Herodotus informs much of our knowledge on how the Persian Empire was represented in literature around the 5th and 4th centuries. However, he contributes to a trend seen in other representations of the Persian Empire that frame the empire as the one true enemy of Greece, which has helped shape the more modern interpretation of the Greco-Persian Wars as a divide between “East” and “West.”


Herodotus begins his account of the Greco-Persian Wars by recounting the history of the Persian Empire and its kings, but his characterization of Xerxes, the king responsible for the second invasion of Greece, follows a pattern of portraying the man as effeminate, hubristic, and careless. For example, there is the famous scene of Xerxes whipping the Hellespont after his forces were unable to cross. This scene only appears first in Herodotus and then later in authors who have read his works, but it has still become part of how Xerxes is remembered, despite the high probability that it is not true.


Marble relief from Parthenon frieze by Pheidias, 438-432 BCE. Source: British Museum


In addition to a shift in how the Persian Empire is represented in literature, we also see new artistic representations. Following the destruction of Athens after the Battle of Thermopylae, Pericles, an Athenian politician, began a reconstruction campaign on the Acropolis. As part of this reconstruction, he funded the Parthenon, which replaced the former temple of Athena that had been destroyed by the Persian military.


The frieze running along the Parthenon’s top depicted Athenian mythological heroes in scenes like the Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons) and the Centauromachy (battle between Greeks and centaurs), which are often perceived as representing the battle between Greeks and barbarians or in this case probably the Greeks and the Persians. Furthermore, the frieze was likely influenced by Persian reliefs such as the ones from Persepolis.


Greece & Persia: A Shifting Relationship 

Kylix of Greek and Persian soldiers, artist unknown, 460 BCE. Source: National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


We do not have much evidence of the Greco-Persian Wars from the Persian Empire, so it’s difficult to say if these wars had anywhere near the name impact as they did on the Greek city-states, particularly Athens. However, it’s important to remember that the Persian Empire was enormous. While the failure to conquer mainland Greece may have had some impact, it didn’t erase the amount of power or territory that Xerxes had in the 5th century. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how the relationship between these two ancient powers shifted over time. Prior to the 5th century, they had a relationship built on trade, and elites in Greece would spend money imitating Persian dress and buying Persian art and goods. Additionally, there were few artistic representations of the empire.


With the beginning of the Greco-Persian Wars, we see a shift in how the Persian Empire is represented in literature and art. They were now rebranded as the effeminate enemy of Greece; a common enemy that helped bolster national identity. Also, the Greek wins during the Persian Wars were perceived as major blows to Persian imperial power. Although this interpretation is far from the truth, it is important to understand where it came from and how the relationship between Greece and the Persian Empire changed due to the wars.

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By Laken BonatchMA History and MS Archives Management (in-progress), BA History & Classics, Laken has a BA in History and Classics from Bryn Mawr College and is currently pursuing an MA in History and MS in Library Science with a concentration on Archives Management from Simmons University. She is working toward becoming an archivist in order to help others in their research while preserving history at the same time, and her academic interests include medieval and ancient history.