In the 5th century before Christ Greece, as a result of the Great Colonization – the process of founding city-states outside of the borders of Hellade, attained the greatest territory in its history. Splendid Greek sailors reached Spanish and Italian lands from the west and the lands of Asia Minor in the eastern part of the Mediterranean See.
In the established colonies, which continued in close contacts with the native town, the political system of polis prevailed. Polis was a specifically Greek invention, called the city-state. It was formed by all of the citizens, had economic and political sovereignty and freedom to decide about its own foreign policy. As long as the Hellenes lived in their motherland Greece, this system was effective. However, with successive spreading onto new territories, it became pernicious for Greece itself. The concept of polis was deeply rooted in the awareness of its citizens. The colonies continued in loose relationship with the mother country, while in the meantime, as a result of subsequent colonisations, they got located in the neighbourhood of bigger, well-organized countries such as Persia, and what made matters even worse, they started to violate the spheres of influence of these countries.
The villages located on the peninsula of Asia Minor got conquered first by the Lydians and then by the Persians. The latter ones created instead satrapies - their own administrative units and imposed tyranny. The Greeks were hostile towards despotic monarchy by nature – after all, it aimed at the sovereignty of the polis. The Persians, however, quickly captured the trade routes connecting the colonies with the Greek Peninsula. Due to such conditions, an insurrection broke out in Ionia, but soon it got suppressed. The rebels did not obtain any help from the Greeks, because their ‘thinking horizon’ ended at the frontiers of their own polis. Only Athens, which was concerned about its own security, sent 20 ships to the insurgents. Despite all the difficulties, the rebellion persisted for a long time. The Persians only managed to take control over the situation after dozen years of fights; they destroyed Miletus and extended their supremacy onto Thrace and the neighbouring islands. During the uprising, the temple of goddess-mother Kybele got burnt to ashes, which Persians did not fail to make use of in their propaganda.
Greek world after the Ionian uprising remained indifferent. Sparta was busy suppressing its own internal dissensions, and in the biggest, except for Sparta, centre – Athens, the aristocracy was in authority. This social group aspired at imposing an oligarchic form of government, in other words, the rule of aristocracy.
The fire in the temple of Kybele became a pretext for the Great Persian King to punish the rebellious tribes. His commanders got an order to destroy Eretria and Athens. It was only then, that the citizens of Athens got aware of the seriousness of their own situation. A representative of the lower classes – Themistocles presented a project of building a fleet, which however got rejected in favour of Miltiades, an expert of Persian tactics, who was voted the chief strategist. When Persian army was making its way towards Athens, following the advice of Miltiades, 10 thousand of hoplites set out for a battle. The critical confrontation took place under the village of Marathon (September 490 AD). The Greeks were standing on the highland waiting for the reaction of the Persians, who were the first ones to attack. The heavy-armed hoplites in their famous formation – phalanx – came down running from the mountainsides, which resulted in lower accuracy of Persian arrows and, as a consequence, in a reduced number of the dead. When the victory inclined to the side of the Greeks, the Persians embarked the ships with intention of sailing around the Attica and besieging the Athens itself. As the legend states, one of the hoplites run the distance of 50 kilometres to warn the beloved city about the incoming danger – this is were the famous marathon came from. The formations of hoplites set out hurriedly towards the polis; as a result, the Persians renounced to continue the fight. The battle of Marathon demonstrated the superiority of Greek formation over the light-armed Persians. However, it became only the prelude to the latter struggles.
Persian king couldn’t forgive Greece this affront. The defeat in the battle of Marathon became an eyesore to the despot; therefore, he started to prepare for the next decisive confrontation. He collected supplies, prepared tracks, began to build an enormous fleet and to form of a huge army, finally he sent ‘silver archers’ – thalers – everywhere, which were to help him obtain the favour of local governments.
Athens also did not remain dormant. Themistocles carried out thorough reforms of the army and treasury. The construction of the fleet finally began. He also introduced political reforms to allow the knights into the archonate. In view of that, Themistocles pursued politics which aimed at encouraging democratic tendencies, what, as it can be easily suspected, did not appeal to the aristocracy. He was going to pay a high price for that – an exile, but at first he got a favourable prophecy from the oracle of Apollo and sure of his psychological success, he daringly realised his defence plans. Greece started to unite under the flag on Pan-Hellenic Association with the then military hegemon - Sparta - in command and with defensive actions as the main objective.
In the initial period Persian army did not encounter any resistance. Greeks decided to defend the northern border of the peninsula. The Spartans unwillingly joined the fights; they took actions only after the pressure from the side of the association. They gave away Thessaly without fight, but then, due to continuous political pressure, they sent 300 soldiers under the command of King Leonidas. Under the Thermopylae the Persians did not manage to achieve the settlement of the situation, because the Spartans who defended in a narrow gorge caused severe losses to the aggressors. The Persians managed, however, to surround the gorge and the situation of the defenders became hopeless. Leonidas sent away the Greek to their motherland, while he himself with the Spartans defended the canyon until the very end. The next generations will exalt this heroic courage using the two-verse poem by Simonides ‘Passer-by, tell Sparta, that loyal to her laws we repose here.’ The victorious Persian fleet headed towards Athens.
The population of Athens had been evacuated to Salamis and into the Peloponnesian Peninsula. The invaders conquered therefore the abandoned town without difficulty. Then, the Xerxes only still had to destroy the Greek fleet stationing in the port of Salamis. He set out with over one thousand ships. Themistocles resorted to a deception sending Xerxes a rumour about the alleged moral weakness of the Hellene sailors. Nevertheless, luck did not favour the aggressors. During the cruise a storm broke out, which led to damages in a considerable number of ships. Moreover, in the narrow strait big Persian ships did not have any possibility of manoeuvre – a one-sided fight resulted between them and the well manageable Greek boats. What is more, the Greek utilized so-called Greek-fires – a pitch-like mixture of substances, which explodes in contact with water and the boarding technique – a direct attack of the crew onto the opponent’s ship. In such a fight Persian ships suffered serious losses – it was the September of 480 AD. This did not yet settle the results of the whole conflict, but it helped the Hellenes to restore supremacy over the sea and their own coasts.
An uprising in Babylonia made Xerxes return to Persia with a substantial part of the army. He left his plenipotentiary, Mardonius, in place with a task of finishing the offensive. Mardonius forced the inhabitants of Athens to leave the country once again, however soon, thanks to military fortitude and training of the Spartans, he got defeated in the battle of Plataea (479 AD). From that time on, successes of the Greek fleet became substantial. The Persians were getting dislodged to the east; the coasts of Macedonia and Thrace also were getting mopped up of the Persian crews. Finally, under the command of Pausanias the Greeks pushed away the enemies outside of the borders of Hellade.
As a result of the Persian wars, Greece found itself facing an external danger; nevertheless, it did not manage to overcome the internal tendencies for divisions. Athens emerged as a new hegemon, besides the Sparta. A Marine Association was created – an organization opposing the Spartan Peloponnesian Association. All of these factors caused that for Greece a new page of its history was opened.