The Greco-Persian Wars: The Greek Identity

The Greco-Persian Wars (490s-450s BCE) showed Greece’s clout in the region, and these wars set the precedence to how the Greeks were seen as a force not to be reckoned with. The Greco-Persian Wars are a crucial part of history as the impacts of the war helped shaped the Greek identity especially for Athens and Sparta. Culture, military and politics were influenced, and this in turn developed the Greek identity. So let's not waste time and dive straight into the material!


H.A.Guerber,  Theater of Dionysus (1896). CC-PD-Mark. 

H.A.Guerber,  Theater of Dionysus (1896). CC-PD-Mark. 

Sharon Mollerus, Little horse on wheels (2009). CC-BY-2.0  Ancient Greek child's toy recovered from a tomb dating back to 950-900 BC. 

Sharon Mollerus, Little horse on wheels (2009). CC-BY-2.0 

Ancient Greek child's toy recovered from a tomb dating back to 950-900 BC. 

In terms of culture, the Greco-Persian Wars did have a significant impact on Greece especially for Athens. Initially, the culture and identity of Greece was primarily shaped from their interaction with the Mediterranean and Western Asia that led to the exchange of cultures and beliefs during 1000 to 500 BCE (“The Rise of the Greeks,” 109). However, for Athens, the Greco-Persian Wars led to a turning point for their culture which differentiated themselves from the rest. Athens was known for its creativeness and intellectual ability, and this was reflected in the arts scene that flourished after the war #artsyfartsy. In order for this cultural achievement to be fulfilled, Athens needed monetary resources. As such, their source of immediate funding at that time could only come from the exploitation of their role in the Greco-Persian Wars.

Athens held a high position in the Delian league in which their generals led the league to fight against Persia. As such, after the Greco-Persian Wars ended, Athens took advantage of their contributions to the victory of the war and established themselves as an “Imperial Power” in Greece (“The Struggle of Persia and Greece,” 118). This status allowed Athens to gain more monetary benefits as they threatened their allies to make annual monetary contributions, and those who tried to withdraw from the league were forced to stay on. Hence, according to Ian Morris, it was in 480 BCE that the “Greek tragedy, historiography, art, and architecture reach[ed] levels of sophistication” (711). Athens was only able to do that because the financial exploitation of its allies funded art festivals as well as develop the arts and science scene. If Athens did not play a significant role in the war, they would not have been able to have the financial capabilities to invest in this cultural development, and this in turn shaped their identity as well. I guess one could say Athens took a risk and they reaped the rewards after all #kaching.


Ahhh military, the hallmark of every war. Financial gains for Greek’s culture would not be possible if not for the presence of the military. In the past, military might was the representation of a empire’s power, authority and clout - Greece was not an exception. As such, the Greeks were involved in numerous wars at the peak of their power, being especially ambitious but also tenacious. One notable war was the Battle of Marathon. The Greek’s victory during that war was a watershed (although some historians may argue that its significance has been largely exaggerated). This was mainly because the account of the war was mostly recorded by Herodotus, who as mentioned in class, albeit christened as the Father of History, was not seen as very credible given the lack of sources to corroborate with.

Bibi Saint-Pol, Map Greco-Persian Wars (2007). CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Bibi Saint-Pol, Map Greco-Persian Wars (2007). CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Nonetheless, the account of Marathon showed the Greek’s victory over the Persians without the help and reinforcements of the Spartans (the Athenians and their allies were involved instead). Marathon also highlighted the Greeks’ creativity with the use of an unorthodox bottleneck strategy by making use of the mountainous terrain where the Persian forces could not engage from their ships at the coast and hence were forced to disembark which ultimately caused them to be entirely flanked by the Greeks. The panic and chaos resulted in the Persians’ defeat and marked the end of the first invasion that Persia attempted onto Greece.

The victory for the Greeks at Marathon brought immense esteem and reputation for the Greek military, namely the Athenians who led the war. It also showed how creative and strategic the Greeks were in battle which was indeed advantageous and proven successful. From this victory, it pushed Greece's already-strategic military to be even more creative; thus also emphasising the Greek's desire to constantly seek to become innovators and brilliant strategists. The Battle of Marathon prevented a Persian conquest and encroachment onto Greek territory, and a seemingly certain further expansion of the Persian empire in the subsequent years. Hooray to the Greeks!

"Xerxes, Nice try bro, although we got to say your eye-liner and brows are on point"

"Xerxes, Nice try bro, although we got to say your eye-liner and brows are on point"

Even though the Persians did try to invade Greece a second time under the leadership of Xerxes I (more famously known as the Persian villain Xerxes in the movie 300 with the insanely nice threaded brows and deep-set jet black eye-liner), they were ultimately still overpowered and outsmarted by the Greeks. Better luck next time buddy!

"No retreat, no surrender, that is Spartan's law. And by Spartan's law, we will stand and fight, and die. A new age has begun, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it." - Leonidas I

"No retreat, no surrender, that is Spartan's law. And by Spartan's law, we will stand and fight, and die. A new age has begun, an age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their last breath to defend it." - Leonidas I


With military always comes the support from the government which builds the foundation of how the Greek society then was being governed. Hang in there! We know that politics is not the most important thing to read about. Nonetheless, the Greeks were split into city states during 490 BCE. Each city states had its own traditions, culture and political structures. Cool huh? During the Greco-Persian Wars, the main participants were the Ionian rebels, Athenians, Eretria’s, Spartans and Plateanians. We can see that Athenians had a democratic form of government. Their form of electing a government was called Limited Democracy. Accountability was the main democratic value followed by the Athenians. They formed 50 groups from 500 selected individuals. Each group governed for a month. The Athenians held general assemblies to discuss social, political and militaristic matters. Furthermore, large group of ordinary citizens were the decision makers serving as voters in the assembly or as jurors. They played critical roles in holding other officials to account. However, they themselves were unaccountable and could not be called out to explain or justify their votes.

The Spartans interestingly, had an Oligarchy form of government. They chose twenty-eight men together with two kings. This group of thirty men was called the council of elders or gerousia. The council of elders formed proposals and presented them in an assembly made up of free male adults. The assembly have limited power to reject a proposal. Also, the council can withdraw their proposal at any point of time and bring it up again on another occasion when they have gained high support for it. In order to counterbalance the council of elders including the two kings, the Spartans elected five annual overseers called the ephors. The ephors acted as the judicial body and had the power to imprison the king until trial. Their major role was to upheld the supremacy of the law.


Fun fact: do you know that even in today's world, oligarchies still exist? Countries like China, North Korea and Venezuela are still considered oligarchies up till today. 


On the other hand, the Persians followed the monarchy form of government. Persia was under one unified empire. It was ruled by one king and the heir to the throne was the son chosen by the king (Game of Thrones anyone?). The empire was divided into twenty provinces, each ruled by one governor. The governor was kept in check by a secretary and a military official representing the king of kings, or ‘Shahenshah’ meaning Emperor. The Emperor of the Persian empire adopted rules from the people/empires he conquered.

After the end of the Greco-Persian Wars, the Greeks faced political conflict mostly between Athens and Sparta. Spartans felt the purpose of the Delian League had concluded with the end of the war. Thus, Sparta resigned from the League leaving Athens as a sole "super power". In the midst of the conflict, the Persians adopted a divide and rule policy hoping to aggravate the tensions between Athens and Sparta by bribing officials and politicians. Their main aim was to keep the Greeks fighting amongst themselves. This begs the question: did Athens become the first democratic kingdom only because the Spartans withdrew from the Delian League?


All in all, there was a substantial impact on culture, military as well as politics. If not for the Persian Wars, these aspects of the different city states in Greece would have diverged or remained the same as before the war. Undoubtedly, by having an impact on these aspects, it also shaped the Greek identity in which the different states had their own individual characteristics as well. The Greco-Persian Wars have also left us wondering about whether the impact was greater for Persia or Greece, and whether the outcomes would have been different if Greece had not won the Persian wars. Also, one intriguing question remains: so did the Xerxes of the past really have nice threaded brows and eye-liner that girls would die for? We will never know for sure.



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