There is much discussion over whether it was Greek unity that caused the victory against the Persians in the years 490BC-479BC. The three main points of view on the matter is that they were not united at all, which can be seen from the accounts of Herodotus, that they were united, which can be seen in the Themistocles Decree and that it was Themistocles himself that made them unified.
It is on the research of Herodotus that we rely most heavily on for our information of the Persian War period.
He is often criticised for his inaccuracy, bias and failure to evaluate events properly. Unfortunately there is no other major ancient source against which scholars can check his facts. Plutarch writes about him with “blasphemy and slander lie beneath his smooth, delicate surface and we must beware of unconsciously accepting his false and absurd ideas about the greats noblest cities and men of Greece.”
He is generally reliable when it comes to the principal events, even though he is prone to exaggerate the size of the Persian armies brought against Greece.
He is not, however, as useful when it comes to analysis, particularly his judgements about causes for events or tactics in battles. He openly declares his admiration for Athens and his accounts are largely written from the Athenian point of view. However, it must be remembered that he received his information at a time when Athens and Sparta were hostile to one another, after 464. This could be a contributing factor as to why he writes as if there wasn’t unity between the Greeks.
Herodotus dismisses the idea that the Greeks were ever unified. In his writings he gives endless examples of how the Greeks fought with each other constantly. He describes bribery, treachery and blackmail amongst the Greek camps. One of these descriptions is that of Ephilates who showed the Persians the secret pass to the Spartans in the battle of Thermopylae. He believed that if the Greeks were actually unified, it was accidental and never planned. Some modern historians tend to agree with this opinion.
In the battle of Marathon, a Persian armada of 600 ships embarked on an invasion force of approximately 20, 000 infantry and cavalry on Greek soil just north of Athens. Their mission was to crush the Greek states in retaliation for their support of their Ionian cousins who had revolted against Persian rule. Athens mobilized 10, 000 hoplite warriors to defend their territories. The two armies met on the Plain of Marathon which was ideal for Persian cavalry.
The Athenians asked the Spartans for aid in the battle but according to Herodotus, the Spartans were unable to come straight away as they had their religious festival on at the time; “And the Spartans wished to help the Athenians, but were unable to give them any present succour, as they did not like to break their established law.” They did say that they would come as soon as it was over as quickly as they could which shows the unity at the time between Athens and Sparta, the two main forces at the time. When Athens was in need, Sparta would come to help. Herodotus states “After the full of the moon, two thousand Lacedaemonians came to Athens. So eager had they been to arrive in time that they took but three days to reach Attica from Sparta.”
But it wasn’t unity that helped the Greeks win this battle, they were at a slight advantage as they had knowledge of their land unlike the Persians who had no understanding of the Greek geography as it was very different to their own. The greeks knew the Plain of Marathon well and could use the rugged land and the mountains surrounding the plain to their advantage. The Athenians kept in the high land whereas the Persians stationed themselves on the plain.
Another thing that helped the Greeks win was the absence of the Persian cavalry when the Athenians decided to attack. The cavalry was one of the elite units of the Persian army and, if it were present at the battle, would most probably have caused the Persians to win. There are two theories as to why the cavalry weren’t there. The first being that the Persians had ordered the cavalry back onto the Persian ships, perhaps to sail around the Greek army and attack them from behind. The second being that the horses were off eating grass and the Persians couldn’t get them to the battle in time.
According to Bury, the Spartans didn’t really want to go to Thermopylae which suggests that the Greeks weren’t unified. This is assuming that the goal of this battle was to win and not a holding plan. Bury states that the spartans “attempted to cover his [Leonidas] selfish and short-sighted policy by the plea that they were hindered from marching forth in full force by the celebration of the Carnean festival” suggesting that the Spartans did not want to send a full army to help the Athenians.
But according to most historians, the aim at Thermopylae was to hold the Persian army back while the Greece forces ready themselves at the Isthmus. Buckley states “The Persian army could not be defeated in such a position, but it’s advance could be held up indefinately.” This shows that the Greeks had a plan and knew exactly what they were doing. Leonidas’ decision to stay and die with the 300 spartans is said to have been in the vain hope that the Persian force that had travelled down the path might itself be trapped between the 300 Spartans and the main Greek force south of Thermopylae. This shows unity between the Greek states against Persia rule. Herodotus suggested that it was because of the prophecy that Sparta would be plundered unless a Spartan king died.
While the events at Thermopylae were unfolding, a limited and indecisive naval engagement took place at Artemisium. If either side gained an advantage in this battle, modern historians would say that it was probably the Persians. Nevertheless, a storm blew up and inflicted damage on both fleets. In this instance, the Persians became the losers. This battle lessened the Persian fleet which later proved as an advantage to the Greeks in the battle of Salamis.
During this battle the Athenians gave up their leadership position as they knew that they would have better chances if someone else was to lead. This strategy used also shows unity between the Greeks. Herodotus states that “The Athenians waived their claim in the interest of national survival, knowing that a quarrel about the command would certainly mean the destruction of Greece.”
The Themistocles Decree shows a planned outline of the Athenian evacuation suggesting that it was the plan the whole time and that the battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium were to hold the Persians back. This also suggests unity between the Greeks as they follow the plan Troezen inscriptions say before Thermopylae. The decree states that “Who live in Athens shall place [their children and women] on Troezen – the Founder of the land. [The elderly and (movable)] property shall (for safety) be deposited at Salamis. [the Treasurers and] the Priestesses are [to remain] on the Acropolis [and guard the possessions of the] gods. The rest of Athenians in their entirety and those aliens who have reached young manhood shall embarks [on the readied] two hundred shops and they shall repulse the [Barbarian for the sake of] liberty.” If this decree was in fact sound, it shows that the Greeks were deliberately unified.
Also, the Hellenic League is recorded to have held many conferences at Corinth to discuss their strategies against the Persians. This indicates that the Greeks were organized and prepared to work together to destroy the Persians.
Themistocles is said to be one of the most brilliant and innovative leaders of Athens. Thucydides describes him as “a man who showed an unmistakable natural genius; in this respect he was quite exceptional, and beyond all others deserves our admiration.” He believed that when the Persians came in greater force the only way that they would cut off their supply lines was by defeating them at sea. He also knew that Athens future lay with the sea. Herodotus and Aeschylus present Themistocles as the brilliant leader who fooled the hapless Xerxes into fighting in the narrow waters of the straits of Salamis. He apparently sent a messenger posing as traitor to Xerxes to tell him that the Greek fleet was about to retreat and that unless he acted, they would get away.
Themistocles convinced the Greeks that fighting in the narrows would favour the smaller and heavier Greek fleet as fighting in the Isthmus would favour the greater number of Persians. He also convinced them that a defeat for the Persians at Salamis would stop the army advancing to the Isthmus. By doing this, he helped the Greeks greatly and according to Thucydides, saved the Peloponnese.
Some historians say that the arguing that took place between the different Greek leaders which shows disunity was actually planned. They say that the arguments were staged because of Persian spies who were listening in. The spies would then go back to Xerxes and tell him that the Greeks had no chance of winning against the Persians as all they did was fight with each other.
Hammond states that “the battle of Plataea was the finest achievements of Greek unity.” Approximately twenty-three states had taken an oath of comradeship to fight together until the Persian invaders were destroyed, and for around three weeks over 100,000 Greeks had faced extreme difficulties. They had resisted the attacks of the Persians and their allies. There were threats to unity during those weeks, but it was a national alliance, however short lived.
The Serpentine Column, now located in Turkey, is archaeological evidence that suggests that the Greeks were unified. The column shows all the Greek cit-states that were in the Hellenic league and helped fight against the Persians. The list goes from most important to least important.
Although it is hard to tell whether the Greeks were unified or not, it is clear that when the crunch time came, they all pulled together and succeeded in defeating the Persians. As Thucydides says, “It was by common effort that the foreign was repelled.”