Assess the reasons for the victory of the Greeks in the Second Persian War (480–479 BC).
The Greeks were victorious in the Second Persian War because of a number of factors. These include the superior leadership from commanders such as Themistocles and Leonidas, the effective Greek strategy and the cooperation of all the Greek city states to unite against a common threat. Ancient historians such as Aeschylus in his play ‘The Persians’ and Herodotus attribute the Greek victory to the so called ‘hubris’ or extreme confidence and arrogance showed by Xerxes. All these reasons played a crucial role in the Greek victory over the Persians in the Second Persian War. The leadership showed by men such as Themistocles and Leonidas had a significant impact in the victory for the Greeks. Thucydides describes Themistocles as a man who showed an ‘unmistakable natural genius’. This natural genius was shown in the years preceding the Second Persian, after the defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Themistocles realized the consistent threat of the Persians and that they would return a large and more formidable force. Therefore he proposed that the newly discovered silver at the Athenian silver mine at Laurium be spent on an elite new naval fleet rather than be distributed amongst the people.
The Athenian people were skeptical about a second Persian invasion, so Themistocles further proposed the idea that the fleet could be used against Aegina, who Athens had been in long-running war with them. As a result Themistocles naval policy was easily carried. Herodotus states that one hundred triremes were constructed, ships that proved to be vital in naval battles such as Artemesium and Salamis in 480 BC, where Salamis was a major turning point victory for the Greeks. Herodotus praises Themistocles actions and states that ‘Themistocles was regarded everywhere as by far the wisest man of all the Greeks’. Themistocles wisdom was again shown by promoting a stable Greek strategy, one of luring the Persian in strategic chokepoint and bottleneck locations to congest their superior numbers and make them useless. Again this strategy proved to be very effective it the battle of Thermopylae and Salamis in 480 BC. Themistocles proposed an evacuation plan of Athens with the Themistocles Decree. The decree gives evidence that the Athenians had a carefully planned operation to evacuate in the expectation that the Greeks would be defeated.
The Athenians would ‘send their women and children to Troezen’ and that the ‘old men and their moveable possessions would be send to safety on Salamis’. The Themistocles Decree demonstrates Themistocles intelligence and also the trust and loyalty the Athenian people had in him. Themistocles qualities were summed up by Thucydides who stated that Themistocles was ‘supreme at doing precisely the right thing and precisely the right moment’. This quote praises Themistocles’ intelligence and wisdom and overall explains his contribution to the Greek Victory. Leonidas was another significant commander in the Second Persian Wars that help contribute to the Greek victory. Leonidas was the King of Sparta and commander of the Greek forces at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. Herodotus praises Leonidas and the other Spartans at the battle stating that ‘Leonidas fell fighting, bravely, together with many other famous Spartans’. This was because was Leonidas who made the decision to dismiss the bulk of the Greek force as he realizes the battle was lost.
Leonidas stayed behind with his personal bodyguard of the finest 300 soldiers in all of Sparta, the ‘knights’ and held the Persians at the pass for several crucial days and allowed the other Greeks to retreat, evacuate Athens and reorganize their forces. Leonidas’ actions at Thermopylae are considered as the greatest act of courage and self-sacrifice in ancient history. This idea is reinforce as the historian Burn claims that ‘Leonidas had not, perhaps, shown the highest qualities of generalship’. Perhaps the most significant contribution made by Leonidas was the unfaltering example of courage, leadership and audacity in the face of certain death, an example that truly inspired the Greeks to fight on and honor the memory of Leonidas and the brave 300 Spartans. The symbolic impact that Leonidas had in the Second Persian War is another key contribution to the Greek victory. Both the contributions made by Themistocles and Leonidas are highlight in their leadership, courage and tactical brilliance. Their influences in various battles, in particular Leonidas at Thermopylae and Themistocles at Artemisium and Salamis, proved to be vital in the Greek victory.
The Greek land/sea strategy of obstructing and congesting the massive, superior numbers of the Persians proved to be extremely successful and ultimately won the war for the Greeks. It was clear from the beginning of the war that the Persians had brought a superior number of troops to Greece and would use them to overwhelming the Greek forces. Therefore the Greeks, by Themistocles proposal, opted for a massive land/ sea strategy of defending strategic bottleneck locations. This was used at Thermopylae and Salamis and proved to be quite effective. By fighting in closed spaces and at sea, the Greeks were also able to nullify the spear-head of the Persian attack, the cavalry. This strategy had great success, especially at the naval battle of Salamis where the swift, agile Greek triremes, constructed from Themistocles naval policy, outmaneuvered the heavy slower Persian ships in the tight strait. This strategy suited the Greek naval power in the Aegean and helped win them the key battle of Salamis which was a decisive, turning point victory for the Greeks.
Therefore the Greek strategy proved to be very effective and contributed to the Greek victory. The cooperation of the independent city states to unite against a common threat was another significant reason for the Greek victory. These independent Greek city states had fought for a considerable time such as Athens and Aegina, and Sparta and Argos; however they all put aside their differences and achieved unity for the first time at the congress at the Isthumus before the Second Persian War. The Serpentine Column supports Herodotus claims of unity and served as a symbol of this unity with the names of 31 independent states inscribed on it. The column commemorates the Greeks who fought and died at Plataea and serves as a constant reminder of why the states are unified. This unity helped the Greeks immensely in the time of war as they were working cooperatively for a common goal.
The other Greeks were also able to attain help from the Spartans who were considered by Herodotus to be the best soldiers in all of Greece. The impact the Spartans had on the ability and the morale of the other Greeks was immense and was particular displayed in the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale. The importance of the Spartans was shown by the Greeks when the Spartan king, Leonidas was chosen to lead the Army and Thermopylae and it was also a Spartan, Eurybiades who lead the navy at Artemisium. This exceptional display of unity was a major contributing factor to the Greek victory. This range of factors all contributed to the Greek victory in the Persian wars. The superior Greek leadership under leaders such as Themistocles and Leonidas, the Greek strategy of bottle necking the Persians and the intelligence of the Greek force to fight in unison against a common threat proved to all be significant factors the war.
The historian Ehrenberg reinforces the points and states ‘Victory was due to intelligent leadership as well as great courage and discipline by almost everybody on the Greek side’. Both Herodotus and Aeschylus support these reasons and help explain why the Greeks achieved victory in the Second Persian War.