What Was The Cause of The Persian Wars?

In our quest to put the Persian Wars on trial, we find our inquiry focused chiefly on two groups: the Athenians and the Persians, or the Achaemenids. Herodotus, a wandering traveler like Odysseus, identifies the search for the causes of the war as one of main reasons he sets out to write the text. He traces the origins of the ‘global’ conflict to threads carried down from tyrants and democrats that existed generations prior to the central crux of the conflict.

Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David in 1814

In Athens, the origins of its culture are traced to the wisdom of Solon, the legendary Archon of Athens. Like Herodotus, he travels abroad to visit the halls of Croesus, king of the Lydians and advises him that the happiest and richest of men are to be judged only by the ways in which they end their lives -defending their polis as Greek men are prone to do. He does this to upset Croesus’s comfortable and luxurious tyranny that has become an empire. The Athenian character, on the other hand, is characterized by its reaction against the threat of slavery -a desire to preserve custom.

While Herodotus cannot verify the stories of injustice told by the Phoenicians and the Persians, he does trace the seed of empire to the power transfer from Kaunales to Gyges -a regicide.

The story of Gyges is the first full story, logoi, in the text and in it Herodotus reveals a theme can be traced throughout the text. Gyges is bound by fate to either die or commit regicide for looking upon another man’s wife -namely the wife of Kaundales. In order to preserve custom, a custom violated by King Kaundales, the tyrant, Gyges must either seize power or else perish. The barbarians blame the cause of the war on the abductions of women, though it is later acknowledged that only a weak and inferior man would go into battle over a woman.

However, the first to transgress the Hellenes was Croesus, the third descendent from Gyges. He attacked the Ephesians, Ionians, and Aeolians. Croesus fails to properly address customs and understand oracular prophecies leading to the death of his son. Meanwhile, the Lydian empire had grown decadent and weak as Croesus traveled from his home widely to where the climate was more comfortable, at Sardis. Additionally, Croesus was also comfortable with his assumed interpretation of the Oracle at Delphi’s prediction for future events and his desire for more “land” being the chief reasons why he invaded Cappadocia, infringing on Persian territory. However, underestimating the force of the Persians, blinded by his own decadence, Croesus and the Lydians flee behind the walls of Sardis, a foreign city hoping for urgent aid from the Spartan allies.

In a world of only masters and slaves, an empire, such as the Lydian empire ruled by Croesus, cannot afford to grow complacent and decadent. Their once coarse strength, emboldened by a will to be the best, grows soft and arrogant -chaos and self-destruction is forgotten about.

However, the growth of the Persian empire, under Cyrus “The Great”, is the result of a new empire composed of many free peoples. As discussed elsewhere Cyrus was often viewed as a liberator, especially among groups like the enslaved Jews in Mesopotamia (see the Book of Isaiah). His empire was not one of conquest, but rather a ‘diverse’ empire composed of different nations and societies, each practicing and maintaining their own customs. The Persians merely absorbed the peoples and required tribute be paid. However, like the Lydians and the Medes before them, as well as all empires thereafter, the Persian empire was forced the make a choice about whether or not it would continue to expand or decline -there is no neutral position for an empire.

Cyrus had initially instigated a revolt for Persia by promising great wealth and luxuries. The future leaders of Persia, especially the mad king Cambyses, also fall subject to this fate -slaves to their rapacious desire for material pleasure. On the other hand, the Athenians fight to defend themselves against the threat of slavery, for wont of being the most excellent. Cyrus is described by Herodotus as “wise” but the later emperors, such as Darius and Xerxes, behave more like Achilles in pursuit of revenge rather than tactically like Odysseus. The difference between the Athenians and the Persians is that one fights for conquest and the other fights against slavery.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.