Greco-Persian Wars: War, Strategy and Culture

Greco-Persian Wars: War, Strategy and Culture
Greco-Persian Wars: War, Strategy and Culture

Some wars have turned the course of human history in a fundamentally new way. In fact, the impact of military factors has changed the course of history not only in the short term, but in the long term as well. Such were the Greco-Persian Wars, often simply called the Persian Wars. Since its inception, in the middle of the sixth century, the Persian Empire expanded and dominated the area of Near East. Τhe culmination of Persian territorial expansion westwards led to the final confrontation of Persia and Greece, in 490 and 480–479. The focus of our course is on the decade comprising the epic battles of Marathon (490), Thermopylae and Artemisium (480), Salamis (480), Plataea and Mycale (479)— famous to this day.
From the Persian point of view, these events were not quite as significant as they appear to the Greeks. Nevertheless, and here is the crucial point, from the point of view of the Greeks, these events created a new epoch. The Greek victory had far-reaching consequences not only for the Greeks but also for the West. It made possible the continued existence of the distinct Greek civilization and culture, exemplified by Periclean Athens. It is at that time, that freedom (eleutheria) entered the political language of the Greeks. However, there are very few Western institutions that did not originate in Greece: open markets, consensual government, rationalism, free inquiry, civilian control of the military and political authority separate from religion, are all found in the fifth-century city-state. From that time on, we can trace “the invention of the Barbarian” and the beginning of an all too familiar split between East and West.


Professor, Department of International and European Studies, University of Piraeus
Major General (retired)
Lieutenant General (retired)
Major General (retired)

The Programme is addressed to anyone with an interest in the history of Greece or interest in the classical world at large.

The aim of this course is to apply an holistic approach to the study of the Persian Wars, presenting them in a unique and innovative way. 
Firstly, it examines the successful defence of Greece by a few city-states against the vast Persian Empire, an extraordinary military feat. It addresses such topics such as causes, effects and consequences of war but also strategy, tactics, logistics, technology, and leadership from both sides. 
Secondly, as this is not a ‘’drums and trumpets’’ history for great captains and battles, closer focus is brought to bear on topics such as the human factors of war, a look at the direct experience of individuals at 'the point of maximum danger’’.  It explores the physical conditions of fighting, the particular emotions and behavior generated by battle, as well as the motives that impelled soldiers to stand and fight. 
Last but not least, the course also pays attention to the political, social, economic and cultural impact of the wars. In particular, special consideration is given on the commemorations of the wars, their influence to the literature, architecture and fine arts, even to the present day Hollywood. Each lesson will be accompanied with relevant iconographic material.

Lesson 1: The two Worlds, East and West: Greek city-states and Persian Empire

At the outbreak of Greco-Persian Wars, Greece and Persia were two very different entities. In 6th Century BC and in a period of less than 50 years, the Persian Achaemenid dynasty succeeded to establish a world empire stretched from the Indus River to Egypt and from Caspian Sea to Aegean. During its ascension, the Empire developed an efficient bureaucracy, a road network, a complex economy, and a powerful army. The Greek mainland is mountainous and between the rugged mountain ranges the communication is difficult. The many separate valleys and islands promoted since the 8th Century the growth of independent city-states (poleis), each of which developed its own customs. The Greeks chose isonomia, equality before the law, which all later generations would identify with democracy. By contrast, the Persians were governed by a monarch and monarchs are unaccountable to anyone but themselves.

Lesson 2: Strategy and Operations

As the Persian realm expanded, it was only a matter of time before it would come into conflict with the mainland Greeks. To control the Aegean the Persians needed a navy. One of Darius' spectacular achievements was his ability to successfully inaugurate and deploy the world's first regular imperial navy. The final confrontation of Persia and Greece, between 492 and 479 B.C., should be seen as the culmination of Persian territorial expansion. In the three campaigns launched against Greece, the Persians met the united Greek city-states and ultimately failed. The first campaign in 492 BC did not go beyond Macedonia, the second in 490 BC ended with Persian defeat at Marathon and the last one in 480-479 BC confirmed the Greek victory.

Lesson 3: Armies, Weapons and Tactics

The Greco-Persian wars were fought by two very different military systems, based on two quite dissimilar societies. The Persian Army reflected the ethnic diversity of the Persian Empire, including a wide range of troop types and weapons. The Persian way of war, focusing mainly on archers backed by light infantry and cavalry, was very much a child of Near Eastern geography, with its vast areas of flat and open expanses. The Greek use of the phalanx formation allowed them to use their more heavily armored troops to strengthen their defensive positions and inflict heavy damage on the Persian army. The phalanx was essentially a tight array of hoplites and it proved to be very effective against the Persians.

Lesson 4: The Face of Battle

The face of battle is military history from the battlefield: a look at the direct experience of individuals at the point of maximum danger. It examines the physical conditions of fighting, the particular emotions and behavior generated by battle, as well as the motives that impel soldiers to stand and fight rather than run away. Against the orthodox command-centered focus, the face of battle, introduced by John Keegan, attempts to understand the experience of battle from the perspective of the combatant. In our case we focus on the Greek hoplite and Persian soldier, his motivation to go into battle, his physical and psychological challenges, his food and medical treatment.

Lesson 5: Battle of Marathon

The Persian "Great King" Darius I in 490 BC launched the second full-scale attempt by an Asian power to subdue the whole of Europe. In Marathon, Athenians and Plataeans defeated the Persians. Marathon, through the writings of Herodotus and others, quickly became celebrated as history’s first great decisive battle. Stories about the fight survive as fact and influence even today’s classical scholars and events.

Lesson 6: Battles of Thermopylae and Artemision

At their third attempt to invade Greece the Persians encountered the united Greeks. Led by Sparta and Athens, about 30 Greek cities had formed a defensive league. Realizing they were outnumbered on both land and sea, the Greeks pursued a strategy of finding narrow passes or straits in which to battle. In the end, they chose a forward defense in central Greece, at the pass of Thermopylae and the straits of Artemision. The battle of Thermopylae, a Greek defeat, set the example of sacrificial courage of patriots defending their homeland. The Greek fleet, dominated by the Athenian contingent, fought an inconclusive engagement at Artemision and then fell back to Salamis.

Lesson 7: Battle of Salamis

The battle marked the high-point of the third Persian invasion of Greece. The Greek victory in the waters around the island of Salamis in 480 B.C. and the subsequent land battles that followed completed the defeat of the Persians that had begun at Marathon a decade earlier. If Xerxes had been victorious at Salamis, it is doubtful that the divided Greeks would have even been able to unite to expel the Persians from their territory.

Lesson 8: Armies, Battles of Plataea and Mycale

The victory of Salamis did not end the Persian invasion and left a real threat to Greece. At the very end of the third invasion, the Persian land forces under their general, Mardonius, were attempting to extricate what was left of the Persian army from Greece. The united Greek city-states land forces defeated the Persians and their commander Mardonius was killed. On the same day as the battle of Plataea, a naval battle at Mycale against the remnant of the Persian fleet also gave victory to the Greeks. Plataea and Mykale sealed the Greek victory. The war would continue for decades, but it was the Greeks who were on the offensive.

Lesson 9: The Impact of the Persian Wars on the Hellenic World and the Western Civilization

The Greek victory in the Persian Wars had far-reaching consequences for the Greeks and the West. The Persian defeat is responsible for the ensuing cultural renaissance, the Greek Enlightenment, of the next half century. It is not hard to see how much the Greeks have influenced the world in which we live today. They were the ones who first gave the world democracy, the preferred form of government around the world, and the works of their philosophers, such as Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. However, so many of these great cultural achievements came after the Greco-Persian Wars, meaning that had the outcome of this great conflict been different, the world today might be a much different place.

Lesson 10: Commemorating the Persian Wars, Preserving Memory and Enhancing Identity

The Persian Wars and their commemoration loomed large in Greek history and culture for many centuries. They contributed to the self-definition of Greeks vs. others; led to the rise of the Athenian Empire; and Alexander the Great would later set out on his conquest as a Greek war of revenge against the Persians. The Greeks who defeated the Persian invaders, erected monuments to last beyond their lifetimes and to arouse in succeeding generations a feeling of respect and wonder for their achievement.

Lesson 11: Artistic Representation of Persian Wars in literature, sculpture and painting

The story of the Persian Wars began to emerge even before the final departure of the Persians from the Greek mainland. The ‘reception’ of the Persian Wars has evolved continuously. Throughout antiquity and from the Enlightment to the present day, the ‘defense of Greece’ inspired both real historical developments and cultural phenomena in literature, painting and architecture.

Lesson 12: Modern Reception of Persian Wars in Hollywood Films

In 2007, Hollywood redressed the matter of the impact of the Persian Wars and released the blockbuster film, 300. A sequel to 300 appeared in 2014, called 300: Rise of an Empire. Both films portray the Greco-Persian Wars in binary terms: the democratic, good, rational "Us" versus the tyrannical, evil and irrational, "other" of the ever-nebulous (if not exotic) "Persia. The Persians remain the incarnation of every Orientalist stereotype imaginable: decadent, oversexed, craven, weak, and spineless. Are the values and the stereotypes as well remaining the same after 2,500 years? How much objectivity exists in those films? Is there any political or psychological reason laying in such a directors’ approach intentionally or unintentionally?

In each module the elearner will have to take and submit electronically the corresponding tests, according to the timetable given by the instructor. The grading scale ranges from 0 to 100%. 
The Training Certificate is awarded when the learner receives an average grade higher than 50%.  

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The e-learning course is implemented via a user-friendly educational platform adjusted to the Distance Learning Principles. Courses are structured as weekly online meetings; interaction with the course tutor and other trainees takes place in a digital learning environment. The courses are designed to fit around your schedule; you access the course whenever it is convenient for you, however within the given deadlines.

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Every week e-learners are provided with the relevant material, delivered either in the form of video-lectures, text notes and relevant presentations or as a combination of them. The educational material of the course is uploaded gradually, per educational unit. During the course, important info for the smooth conduct of the educational process, such as timetables for the submission of the exercises are announced on the Announcement section of the platform.

For successful completion of the course the e-learner should have fulfill her/his academic obligations, meaning should have submitted all corresponding assessment exercises and have achieved at least an average of 50% grade in the corresponding tests for each module. The score scale ranges from 0 to 100%. Finally, if the total score on one or more lessons of the course does not exceed 50%, trainees can ask for reassessment.

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Interactivity, flexibility and our long tradition guarantee that learning with us offers a successful and rewarding experience. Finally, access to a large variety of material and online resources available in each unit aims to excite your curiosity and guide you in exploring further your favourite topic. Part of the online material can be downloaded providing the chance to quickly refresh your memory after the completion of the course.

When will I receive the Certificate?

The Certificate will be sent to you electronically 30 working days upon completion, if you have no remaining academic or financial obligations. The Certificate will be also sent to you through traditional post services. Upon request the Certificate can be sent with the use of courier services. In this case, the relative cost should be covered by your side.