Greece’s wars with Persia (490-479 B.C.) are among the most fascinating periods of history, filled with stories of great battles, valiant deeds and - most appealing of all - victory against overwhelming odds. The stakes were high for Greece; a single disaster could have cost the Greek city-states not only their freedom but the age of philosophy and learning which began only a half century later. A “pre-game analysis” of the struggle would doubtless have predicted an easy win for Persia. The Persian Empire possessed almost unlimited military resources and was ruled by a totalitarian monarch. A well ordered system of government-based on provincial rulers known as satraps who were directly responsible to the king- allowed the king to make full use of his military resources.
Since its establishment by Cyrus in 530 B.C., the Persian Empire had grown accustomed to military victory. The Greeks, on the other hand, were a collection of minor city-states loosely united by common language and customs. Collectively the Greek city-states possessed a small but impeccably trained army and navy. But perhaps Greece’s greatest strength was in her apparent weakness. Although representative government was not yet common in Greece, the political division into self-governed city-states helped to foster a sense of pride and patriotism in the Greek people. The city-states were small enough that each man could see himself as an important part of his community, and face the enemy knowing that the fate of his family and community would depend on his valor. Thus alone can we explain the feats of Greek armies at Marathon, Thermopylae and elsewhere. These battles should not be seen as struggles between hundreds and hundred thousands, but rather as confrontations between free and dedicated soldiers and the slaves of a despotic government.