Barbarians and Neighbors: Differentiating the Greco-Persian and Peloponnesian Wars David G.

Terrell 02 July 2009

Except for the geographic theater of operations centered on Hellas, and the individual and crewserved weapon systems of the belligerents, almost every strategic and operational characteristic of the two Greek wars of the fifth century BC differed. This essay will attempt to broadly describe the differences between the Greco-Persian War and the Peloponnesian War in terms of their origins; the belligerents’ ideologies and aims; the respective military strengths of the opponents; and, the manner in which the wars were prosecuted. When discussing the origins of the two wars, the most important difference arises from the fact that the Greco-Persian War was between two very different ethnic and cultural groups; while the Peloponnesian War was fought between two coalitions of Greek-speaking peoples with similar myths, customs, and mores. The beginnings of the Greco-Persian War were also facilitated by the Athenians all too human failure to understand the import of Persian rituals and customs; after all, the Greeks lived at the far edge of the Persian world. For example, the Persian ritual of offering and receiving of token amounts of earth and water, used to symbolize and invoke a sacred suzerain-vassal covenant, was completely trivialized by Athenian diplomats seeking foreign aid from the Persians. Later, when the Athenians broke the conditions of the covenant, the righteous wrath of the Persian king—probably intensified by the prospect of other vassal states following suit—set his war machine in motion so as to reclaim the Athenians into the Persian Empire. The Peloponnesian War, on the other hand, was very much an internecine affair. In the wake of the Greek coalition victory in the Greco-Persian War, the two principal defenders of Hellas, Sparta and Athens, became political rivals. Sparta, with its traditional domination as a land power and equally traditional oligarchic form of government, looked askance at the rising asymmetric threat posed by the

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Athenian state, backed by its substantial naval and commercial fleets and energized by a radical egalitarian streak of democracy. Eventually, seeing democracy as an ever-encroaching threat to Sparta’s control of the helots that were the core of their economic and agricultural infrastructure and, in the face of perceived economic imperialism, they chose to go to war to reestablish Sparta’s sole hegemony of Hellas. The ideologies and aims of the belligerents in the Greco-Persian War are somewhat related to the conditions already described. The Greeks and Persians had very different concepts of hegemony and the relations between states. According to Sage, the Persians were accustomed to a strict system of suzerainty and vassalage. While the Persians were tolerant of local religions and were used to enjoying local support from the subjects of their vassal states, they did not allow local government but rather invested sovereign power in hand of governors reporting directly to the king.1 The Greeks were abhorrent of the idea, having enjoyed enough isolation after the Bronze Age to develop—in Persian eyes—a semi-anarchic system of independent poleis. Coming to grips with the implications of the Persian ideology—being forced into a suzerain-vassal relationship—made the Greeks conscious of their collective cultural and ethnic identity and allowed them to view the prospects as an archetypical battle between freedom and despotism that transcended earlier internecine disputes.2 After the Greco-Persian War, the Pan-Hellenic unity lasted for several decades, to varying degrees. Two spheres of influence arose. One was centered on Sparta, where the insular geography of the Peloponnese and the mixed fear and respect of their hoplite-centered armed forces attracted (or extorted) the allegiance of their neighbors and several other oligarchic poleis. The second looked to Athens, whose naval contributions to the Greek victory in the Greco-Persian War and their dominant maritime commercial power attracted (or encouraged) the association of many poleis in northern Hellas and around the Aegean. Athens became increasingly radical in their approach to government, investing evermore

1 2

Michael M. Sage, Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook, (New York: Routledge, 1996), 81. Sage, 87, 93.

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sovereign power in the hands of individuals, without much regard to property or wealth. This egalitarian approach to Athenian democracy threatened the rule of oligarchic minorities in Sparta and other likeminded poleis. Time passed, and the death of those who remembered the unifying reasons behind the Greco-Persian War and the absence of an external threat to feed a communal spirit finally allowed the perceived differences between Greeks to overcome any fraternal bonds; discord between Greeks returned—and the Peloponnesian War resulted. The Persians, at the time of the Greco-Persian War, were the regional superpower of a large part of the world east of Hellas. Persian military power was based on forces drawn from the Empire’s many vassal states; each adding their unique style, equipment and capabilities to the Persian military machine. The Persians therefore fielded, as a matter of course, a vast, diverse combined arms force including various heavy and light infantry, cavalry, naval, logistics, and engineer units. They were adept at logistics, siege warfare, bridging and information warfare (i.e., diplomatic maneuvers); able to resupply large expeditionary forces over long lines of communication.3 The Greeks had smaller but higher quality, disciplined land and naval forces, short supply lines and the desperate courage and intimate knowledge of the battlefield arising from fighting in and for your homeland. During the years between the two wars, the Greeks rested, feeling secure in the belief that their form of warfare, buttressed by the moral and spiritual strength they thought inherent in free men fighting for a righteous cause, was invincible. Accordingly, there were essentially no changes in the military art in the interregnum and everyone stuck with what worked for them. Sparta continued to rely on the deterrence of its solidly professional hoplite-based land forces to dominate its immediate neighbors and give heart to their allies. Athens, however, spent a great deal of funds to wall the city and its port, nullifying much of any land-based threat; and enlarging and maintaining its dominating naval fleet, therefore protecting the city’s maritime lines of supply. As the Peloponnesian War began, the Athenian

Sage, 82.

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defenses were very effective against the Spartan incursions. The plagues that afflicted Athens did more damage than the Spartiates. The Athenian naval forces, carrying out costal raids in Laconia, were often able to induce the Spartans to retire from Attica. Eventually, Sparta had to begin building its own fleet but overcoming Athenian naval superiority proved very difficult and may have proved impossible but for the Athenian’s ill-starred Sicilian Expedition, which allowed the Spartans to catch up. Extant records of the Greco-Persian War are dominated with reports of large battles between against massed combined arms forces or major fleet actions involving hundreds of vessels and thousands of sailors. The Persians were operating at the end of very long lines of supply while the Greeks were operating in friendly and familiar territory. The Persian forces were made up of vassal troops from many different cultural and linguistic groups, under the leadership of dominant leaders. Their operational paradigms were based around absolute obedience, enforced by capital punishment. This potentially imparted to them the sense of fear and loathing commonly seen in the armies of totalitarian regimes—and may have contributed to their vulnerability to defeat at the loss of senior leaders. Greek forces, though subject to internecine strife, were forced to seek common objectives by the common danger—which, in turn compelled them to agree to a unity of command that would have been impossible previously.4 This was facilitated by their common language and culture. The Greek forces in the Greco-Persian War were aristocratically organized, with assignments to infantry, cavalry and ship’s crews being based on the family and financial status of the individual. The Greek’s exposure to Persian units of combined arms, fighting effectively, opened the door to their eventual consideration of similar solutions in the future.5 The Peloponnesian War was different. There were a few pitched battles between large land forces—much smaller than those of the Greco-Persian War. These classic battles also dominate the written records of this war. However, there are accounts indicating that the land war consisted mostly of

Alfred S. Bradford, With Arrow, Sword, and Spear: A History of Warfare in the Ancient World, (New York: Fall River Press, 2001), 69. 5 Sage, 141.

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small unit actions fought by infantry and cavalry units patrolling the belligerent’s home t erritories. The Spartans, striving to maximize their combat strengths continually tempted the Athenians to classic hoplite conflict. The Athenians attempted to wear the Spartans down by remaining behind their walls while making harassing maritime raids in their rear areas. As the war continued, exhaustion of funds and reduced population weakened the Athenian’s ability to rely on aristocratic modes of filling the ranks. Eventually the system broke down and the military became as egalitarian as the political structures. The Spartans also suffered from losses that eventually resulted in their employment of subjugated peoples in combat roles—previously an anathema. As I have briefly described, the Greco-Persian War and the Peloponnesian War were different— especially in terms of the wars’ origins and the belligerents’ ideologies, aims and the basis of their military power. The Greco-Persian War unified the multitudinous Greek poleis against an external threat and the Greek victory against the Persians set the stage for Western Civilization. The Peloponnesian War was a fight among brothers who had forgotten the lessons bought dearly by their fathers and grandfathers; the weakening in blood and treasure suffered by the Greeks ensured that Western Civilization would have a harsher, Roman flavor. David G Terrell Herndon, VA

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Works Considered
Bradford, Alfred S. With Arrow, Sword, and Spear: A History of Warfare in the Ancient World. New York: Fall River Press, 2001. Burn, Andrew R. Persia and the Greeks: The Defense of the West 546-478 B.C. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962. Cartledge, Paul. The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece, from Utopia to Crisis and Collapse. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2002. Green, Peter. The Greco-Persian Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Hanson, Victor Davis. A war like no other: how the Athenians and Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House, 2006. —. The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Herodotus. The Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Kitto, K D F. The Greeks. New York: Pelican Books, 1951. Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Sage, Michael M. Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 1996. Thucycides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley and Donald Lateiner. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2006.

© David G. Terrell, 2009-2010, except where otherwise noted, content is licensed under a Creative Commons AttributionNoncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. For permission to reprint under terms outside the license, contact

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