Persian Expansion and the Greeks

As the Persian empire expanded, it came into conflict with the Greeks. The Greeks, who were organized into an array of city-states, had established colony cities throughout the Mediterranean.

This excerpt is from the Histories of Heroditus, often called the “father of history.” Of course, just as often, he’s called the “father of lies.” This selection discusses the aftermath of the battle of Marathon (490 BCE) in which the Athenians defeated a superior Persian army.

Herodotus, Histories , Book VII [The Persian War after Marathon]

Now when tidings of the battle that had been fought at Marathon eached the ears of King Darius. . . his anger against the Athenians, which had already been roused by their attack upon Sardis, waxed still fiercer, and he became more than ever eager to lead an army against Greece. Instantly he sent off messengers to make proclamation through the several states that fresh levies were to be raised, and these at an increased rate, while ships, horses, provisions, and transports were likewise to be furnished. So the men published his commands; and now all Asia was in commotion by the space of three years, while everywhere, as Greece was to be attacked, the best and bravest were enrolled for the service, and had to make their preparations accordingly.

After this, in the fourth year, the Egyptians whom Cambyses had enslaved revolted from the Persians; whereupon Darius was more hot for war than ever, and earnestly desired to march an army against both adversaries . . .

Darius, when he had thus appointed Xerxes his heir, was minded to lead forth his armies; but he was prevented by death while his preparations were still proceeding. He died in the year following the revolt of Egypt and the matters related here related [486 BCE], after having reigned in all six-and-thirty years, leaving the revolted Egyptians and the Athenians alike unpunished. At his death the kingdom passed to his son Xerxes.

Now Xerxes, on first mounting the throne, was coldly disposed towards the Grecian war, and made it his business to collect an army against Egypt. But Mardonius . . . who was at the court, and had more influence with him than any of the other Persians, being his own cousin . . . plied him with discourses like the following:

“Master, it is not fitting that they of Athens escape scotfree, after doing the Persians such great injury. Complete the work which you now have in hand, and then, when the pride of Egypt is brought low, lead an army against Athens. So shall you yourself have good report among men, and others shall fear hereafter to attack your country.”

Thus far it was of vengeance that he spoke; but sometimes he would vary the theme, and observe by the way, that Europe was a wondrous beautiful region, rich in all kinds of cultivated trees, and the soil excellent; that no one, save the king, was worthy to own such land.

All this he said because he longed for adventure, and hoped to become satrap of Greece under the king; and after a while he had his way, and persuaded Xerxes to do accordingly to his desires. . .

After Egypt was subdued, Xerxes, being about to take in hand the expedition against Athens, called together an assembly of the noblest Persians, to learn their opinions, and to lay before them his own designs. So, when the men were met, the king spoke thus to them:

“Persians, I shall not be the first to bring in among you this custom—I shall but follow one which has come down to us from our forefathers. Never yet, as our old men assure me, has our race reposed itself, since the time when Cyrus overcame Astyages, and so we Persians wrested the sceptre from the Medes. Now in all this God guides us; and we, obeying his guidance, prosper greatly. What need have I to tell you of the deeds of Cyrus and Cambyses, and my own father Darius, how many nations they conquered, and added to our dominions? You know right well what great things they achieved. But for myself, I will say that, from the day that I mounted the throne, I have not ceased to consider by what means I may rival those who have preceded me in this post of honour, and increase the power of Persia as much as any of them . . .

My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance from the Athenians for the wrongs committed by them against the Persians and against my father. Your own eyes saw the preparations of Darius against these men; but death came upon him, and balked his hopes of revenge. In his behalf, therefore, and in behalf of all the Persians, I undertake the war, and pledge myself not to rest till I have taken and burnt Athens, which has dared, unprovoked, to injure me and my father. . .

For these reasons, therefore, I am bent upon this war; and I see likewise therewith united no few advantages. Once let us subdue this people, and those neighbors of theirs who hold the land of Pelops the Phrygian, and we shall extend the Persian territory as far as God’s heaven reaches. The sun will then shine on no land beyond our borders; for I will pass through Europe from one end to the other, and with your aid make all the lands which it contains one country. . . the nations whereof I have spoken once swept away, there is no city, no country left in all the world which will venture so much as to withstand us in arms. By this course then we shall bring all mankind under our yoke, alike those who are guilty and those who are innocent of doing us wrong.”. . .

Xerxes, having so spoken, held his peace.

Source and Full Text of Book VII of the Histories

Questions for consideration:

  1. How does Heroditus characterize the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes? Provide specific examples.
  2. Heroditus was a Greek–what biases does his history writing reveal, if any?