A Complete Timeline of the Greco-Persian Wars

The Greco-Persian Wars were a critical time in ancient history in which Greek city-states attempted to stop the expansion of the superpower that was the Persian Empire.

Jul 2, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
greco persian wars timeline

 

The Greco-Persian Wars spanned more than half a century and were fought throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers fought in battles that would determine the fate of not just their nations or city-states but of the future of Western and Middle Eastern Civilization.

 

From before the Ionian Revolt to after the Wars of the Delian League, here is a timeline of the Greco-Persian Wars.

 

Achaemenid (Persian) Expansion Before the Conflict (559 – 500 BCE)

portrait cyrus the great
Cyrus the Great, by Aegidius Paulus Dumesnil, 1721-1735, via the British Museum

 

In 559 BCE, Cyrus II established the Achaemenid Dynasty and immediately set about expanding his domain. The Kingdom of Lydia, which had subjugated Greek city-states on the Ionian coast (the coastline of western Turkey today), fell to Cyrus II in 546 BCE, and in the following years, the Greek city-states of Asia Minor were subjugated by the Achaemenids.

 

522 BCE: Beginning of Darius’ Reign 

darius I incense burners detail courtyard bas relief
Darius I with incense burners, bas relief, Persepolis treasury, late 6th to early 5th BCE, in Tehran Architectural Museum, via the Britannica

 

During the reign of Darius I, the Achaemenid Empire expanded even further while bureaucracy and the military were improved. With massive resources and vast pools of manpower, the Achaemenid Empire is considered by many historians to be the world’s first superpower.

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514 BCE: Darius Prepares to Invade Greece  

 

Darius ordered the building of a pontoon bridge across the Bosporus. Darius’ first targets, however, were north of Greece. He attacked the Scythians first, in the process conquering eastern Thrace and parts of what is now Ukraine.

 

Around 500 BCE: Persia Attacks Greek Islands

 

The North Aegean Islands of Limnos and Imnos were attacked and occupied by the Persians. This helped the Persians control the grain supply coming from the Black Sea. The island of Naxos in the Cyclades was also the target of Persian conquest. In 499, Aristagoras, the tyrant of the Greek Ionian city of Miletus, attempted to lay siege to Naxos with the backing of Darius and the Persians. The siege failed.

 

The Ionian Revolt (499 – 493 BCE)

map ancient greece
A map of Ancient Greece showing the Greek mainland, the islands, and Ionia. Image via Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

The Greek Ionian cities were ruled by tyrants who owed tribute and allegiance to the Persians. After the failed attempt to take Naxos, Aristagoras, who promoted the expedition, feared a Persian reprisal. Along with his father-in-law, Histiaeus, he declared a constitutional government in Miletus and expelled the tyrants from the other city-states.

 

498 BCE: The Fighting Begins

 

Aristagoras sailed to the Greek mainland, looking for help. He was refused by the Spartans, but the Athenians promised to send 20 triremes, and the Eretrians promised 5. The ships arrived in 498 BCE, and the Ionians promptly attacked and burnt the city of Sardis, Cyprus. This action spurred rebellions in other places. Greeks in the states of Caria, Bosporus, the Hellespont, and Cyprus rose up against the Persians.

 

497 – 496 BCE: The Persians Retake Cyprus

 

Three Persian army groups were dispatched to deal with the uprisings. The Persians first concentrated on regaining control in Cyprus. Although losing a fleet battle to the rebels, they routed the Cyprian Greeks on land, and the last Greek stronghold on the island capitulated in 496 BCE.

 

496 – 493 BCE: The Ionian Revolt Is Crushed

 

Although delayed by a defeat at the hands of the Carians, two Persian army groups managed to regain control of the Bosporus and the Hellespont. With a large fleet of ships recruited from Phoenicia, Egypt, and Cyprus, the Persians won a decisive victory at sea and then systematically regained control over the rebellious city-states on the coast. Miletus was captured in 494 BCE, and the Ionian Revolt was completely stamped out in 493 BCE.

 

The First Persian Invasion of Greece (492 – 490 BCE)

greco persian wars amphora
An amphora depicting a Greek hoplite in combat with a Persian soldier, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

After the Ionian Revolt, the Persians made preparations to invade the Greek homeland and pacify the Greeks.

 

492 BCE: Mardonius’ Campaign

 

Before Greece could be invaded directly, preparations had to be made in the surrounding areas. Darius’ son-in-law, Mardonius, led this effort in 492 BCE. He re-invaded Thrace, which had thrown off the yoke of Persian control, and fully subjugated Macedon, which had been a vassal of Persia.

 

Mardonius’ fleet sailed to Thasos and subjugated the island, but disaster struck afterward, and the fleet was caught in a violent storm that destroyed many of the ships and drowned thousands of men.

 

Despite these problems as well as having trouble with a local Thracian tribe, the Brygians, the campaign was overall a success, as it had secured the strategic approaches to Greece.

 

491 BCE: Darius Tries Diplomacy

 

Before the Persians launched a full invasion of the Greek homeland, Darius wanted to secure allies in Greece. He sent diplomats to each of the city-states asking for “earth and water” — a traditional way of asking for submission. Many of the states, fearing the wrath of the Persians, accepted the offer. Athens put the diplomats on trial and had them executed, while the Spartans simply threw them down a well.

 

490 BCE: The Main Campaign

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‘Olympias’; a reconstruction of a Greek trireme, 1987, via Hellenic Navy

 

The second and main expedition set sail in 490 BCE and was under the command of a Mede named Datis and Artaphernes, the son of a powerful Satrap. The first target was the island of Rhodes, just off the southern coast of Ionia. The Persians attempted to besiege the city of Lindos but were unsuccessful.

 

Naxos to Eretria

 

The island of Naxos in the Cyclades was the first victim of the Persians. The settlements were burnt, and the population either fled into the mountains or was enslaved.

 

The next target was the island of Delos, but after demonstrating his power, Datis felt no need to raze the settlements. The fleet then island-hopped across the Cyclades, taking hostages and troops until they reached the city of Karystos in Euboea, mainland Greece. The city refused to surrender hostages and was ravaged until the leaders submitted to the Persians.

 

The first major city encountered by the Persians was Eretria which was besieged. After six (or seven) days, the city was captured, razed, and the population enslaved.

 

The Battle of Marathon 

greco persian wars marathon
Heroes of the Battle of Marathon, painted by Georges Rochegrosse, c. 1859–1938, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The next Persian move was to land the army. They chose the beach at Marathon, where they were confronted by an army of Greeks, mainly from Athens. Five days of standoff ensued. Although outnumbering the Greeks by more than 2 to 1, the Persians decided to load their troops back onto their ships and pick another place to land. Once the cavalry had been loaded, however, the Greeks attacked, routing the Persian flanks before achieving a decisive victory and crushing any hopes the Persians had of continuing the campaign.

 

Interbellum (490 – 480 BCE) 

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A hand-colored engraving of Xerxes I, published by Gerard de Jode, circa 1585, British Museum

 

After the Persian defeat, it became clear that it would take a much bigger force of arms to be able to defeat the Greek city-states, especially if they united. Darius began building a huge army to take on this task. Darius, however, died in 486, and his son, Xerxes I, continued the buildup. By 481 BCE, the buildup was complete, and Xerxes began the march toward Greece.

 

The Second Persian Invasion of Greece (480 – 479 BCE)

 

The second Persian invasion of Greece would mark the zenith of the conflict. With an army ten times larger than that of Darius, Xerxes was understandably confident. The Persian army crossed the Hellespont on two massive pontoon bridges. Modern historians estimate the army to be around 200 000 soldiers, supported by a fleet of between 600 and 1 200 triremes.

 

August 480 BCE: The Battle of Thermopylae

david leonidas thermopylae painting
Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques Luis David, 1814, via Louvre

 

The Greeks decided to defend the narrow pass at Thermopylae as the bottleneck would reduce the numerical superiority of the Persian army. Led by Spartan King Leonidas, several thousand Greek hoplites defended the pass for two days. Upon learning that the Persians were about to outflank the Greek force. Leonidas sent off the main Greek force and, alongside 300 Spartan warriors and 700 Thespians, stayed behind to delay the Persian advance. On the third day, the Persians took Thermopylae and killed Leonidas and his troops.

 

The Battle of  Artemisium

 

While the Battle of Thermopylae was being waged, the Greek fleet of 271 triremes defended the Straits of Artemisium, protecting the Greek flank at Thermopylae. After the loss at Thermopylae, the badly damaged Greek fleet withdrew.

 

September 480 BCE: Destruction of Athens and the Battle of Salamis

greco persian wars salamis
An artist’s depiction of the Battle of Salamis. Image via BBC

 

After gaining access to virtually all of northern Greece, the Persians burned Athens. They also hoped that they could force a Greek surrender by destroying the Greek fleet. Under the leadership of Themistocles, the Greek fleet retreated to the Isthmus of Salamis directly off the coast to the west of Athens. Here the Persian numbers worked against the invading fleet, which struggled to maneuver. After destroying 200 Persian vessels, the Greeks secured a decisive victory.

 

June 479 BCE: the Battles of Plataea and Mycale

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Depiction of the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, via akg-images/Osprey Publishing/Peter Dennis

 

The Persian army attempted to draw the Greeks out into the open, where the Persians could make use of their cavalry. They made camp north of a small river near the city of Plataea. The Greek army, heavily outnumbered, attempted to outmaneuver the Persians but were caught in the open and separated. Despite the tactical blunder, the Greek hoplites were far too powerful for the Persian infantry to deal with, and the Persian army was crushed at the Battle of Plataea.

 

A few days later, possibly inspired by news of what was happening across the Aegean, a Greek army at Mycale in Asia Minor defeated the Persian army that was sent to face them. With the help of the Ionian Greeks who turned against their Persian commanders, the Greeks captured the Persian camp and burned the remaining Persian ships in another decisive battle.

 

479 BCE: Sestos

 

After the victories at Plataea and Mycale, the Greco-Persian Wars saw a major turning point, and the Greeks went on the offensive. The Athenians besieged and took the city of Sestos in a bid to deny the Persians access to the Hellespont.

 

478 BCE: Byzantium

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Immortals from the frieze of Archers from Susa, ca. 510 BC, via The Louvre, Paris

 

The following year, the Greeks sailed on Byzantium, which they captured after besieging the city. With control of Sestos and Byzantium, Hellespont and Bosporus were effectively denied to the Persians. This action brought to an end the second attempt to invade Greece.

 

The Wars of the Delian League (477 – 449 BCE) 

 

After the failed attempt by Xerxes to subdue Greece, the Greeks went on the offensive.

 

469 Or 466 BCE?: The Battle of Eurymedon

 

On the southern coast of modern-day Turkey, the Persians began rebuilding their fleet. This fleet was destroyed by the Greeks, who attacked and destroyed it. Around 200 Persian ships were captured or destroyed.

 

460’s BCE: Egyptian Revolt

 

In the mid 480’s BCE, the Egyptian Satrapy revolted against Persian rule. After about two decades, the Athenians decided to get involved and support the Egyptians. The campaign ended in disaster when the Greek forces were besieged and destroyed.

 

Was There a Peace Treaty Between Greece and Persia?

 

Historians are divided on whether a peace treaty occurred, but the conflict seemed to peter out, and actions were taken which would suggest some sort of agreement was made, which drew the conflict to a close. A notable date suggested is 449 BCE, when the Greeks left the Island of Cyprus.

 

The Greco-Persian Wars Were Not the Last Conflict Between Greeks and Persians

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Greek hoplite besting a Persian by unknown artist, 5th century BCE, the tondo of a kylix drinking cup, via the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

 

The Greco-Persian Wars ebbed and flowed throughout their duration. Although the open conflict between the Greeks and the Persians ended, it was by no means an end to the struggle between the two entities, nor was it an end to the effects of war on the common people. Persia engaged in other conflicts, while Greece descended into a bloody war between Sparta and Athens known as the Peloponnesian War. It would be another century before Alexander the Great arrived on the scene and put an end to the Achaemenid Empire.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.