The Persian Wars - The Battles of Thermopylae and Salamis

In about 486 BCE, Emperor Darius of Persia died before he was able to get revenge on the Greeks for the defeat at Marathon. Darius’s son Xerxes became the new emperor. Xerxes was determined to get revenge.

During this time, the Athenians prepared for the next Persian attack. As they often did, the Greeks consulted the Oracle at Delphi for advice on how to defend against the Persians.

The Oracle at Delphi was a woman whom the Greeks believed could talk directly to the gods and see into the future. The oracle told the Athenians that they should “hide behind your wooden walls.”

A Greek politician, Themistocles, believed that the oracle meant that Athens should build a huge fleet of ships (ships were made of wood in those days) and destroy the Persians at sea. Whether or not the oracle knew what she was talking about, Themistocles was correct in his interpretation of her advice. Indeed, the most decisive battle of the Persian Wars would be won or lost at sea.

Athens built a navy of over 200 ships by 481 BCE. Meanwhile Xerxes built an army of 150,000 men and a navy of 600 ships. Once again, the odds were stacked against the Greeks.


The Battle of Thermopylae is a classic example of the Spartan creed of kill or be killed. After Xerxes crossed the Hellespont (the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea), he headed south to attack Athens.

The Athenians knew that they needed to build more ships to defeat the huge Persian navy. King Leonidas of Sparta took 300 Spartan hoplites and 10,000 men from Athens and other Greek city-states to delay Xerxes and his army as long as possible.

The Greeks decided they would make their stand at a narrow pass where the mountains northwest of Athens met the sea. The place was called Thermopylae. When Xerxes found out the size of the tiny Greek army, he must have laughed. Xerxes sent a messenger to tell the Greeks that he was there. Xerxes expected the Greeks would retreat knowing that they could not possibly win such a lopsided battle.

After waiting four days for the Greeks to flee, Xerxes ordered part of his army to attack. The small pass at Thermopylae only allowed a small number of men to pass at one time, however, and the Spartans were able to defeat the first attack.

By now, Xerxes was really mad. On the 2nd day of the battle, he sent his best troops, the Immortals, to attack the Greeks. The Spartans were once again victorious. Now Xerxes was furious.

If this had continued, the Greeks might have actually defeated Xerxes’s army completely. The Persians, however, had treachery and deceit on their side. A Greek named Ephialties told the Persians of a goat path that went around the mountains at Thermopylae. This route would allow Xerxes to send part of his army around the Greeks and attack from behind.

The Greeks learned of the traitor Ephialties act, and eventually, he was captured and killed. The Greeks knew that now they would have no chance against the Persians. King Leonidas sent all but his 300 Spartans to safety. Leonidas and the Spartans stayed to fight to the death, and they did. All 300 were killed in the final stage of the Battle of Thermopylae, but the heroic stand at Thermopylae allowed the Greek’s to organize their forces and come up with a plan to defeat the Persians.


Xerxes and the Persian army moved south to Athens and burned the city. Most of the people in Athens knew this was coming and evacuated to the island of Salamis. A narrow sea passage near the island is where the decisive sea victory that the Oracle of Delphi spoke of came true. Xerxes was so confident of a victory that he had his throne placed upon a hill overlooking the sea near Salamis to watch the battle.

The Greeks used the narrow passage at Salamis to take on just a few Persian ships at a time. This was the same strategy they had used in the land battle at Thermopylae. The Greeks had smaller, more maneuverable ships. The Greeks destroyed the larger Persian fleet, leaving the Persian Army trapped in Greece.


While Xerxes escaped back to Persia, most of his army was trapped in Greece. They spent the winter of 479 BCE starving. Then, a large Greek army came and defeated the weakened Persians at the Battle of Platea. The Persian Wars were over.

The Greeks victory over Persia meant that the Greeks could stay Greek. Athens became the center of culture, science, and knowledge in the Mediterranean region. Sparta, on the other hand, grew wary of the Athenians’ power. This would eventually help lead to a war between Athens and Sparta.