The "Great King" of Persia ordered the Greek cities of Asia Minor to pay him tribute. So the fierce struggle -- the first between Europe and Asia -- began. The Persians captured the Greek cities on the Asiatic coast, and as Athens had helped them, Darius the "Great King" decided to have his revenge. When the king's messengers appeared, asking the Greeks for "earth and water" in token of their submission, they threw them into a well, where they told the messengers they would find plenty of both!
The first fleet sent against Greece was wrecked, and the Persians were drowned. Two years later the Persians crossed the AEgean Sea and landed near Athens, at Marathon (490 B.C.). The vast hordes of the Persian bowmen, drawn from all parts of the huge empire, were, however, beaten by the little Athenian army of spearmen in close array.
Only a few days before, the fast runner, Pheidippides, had returned from an errand to Sparta -- 150 miles from Athens -- which he ran within twenty-four hours! Sparta, like all but one of the Greek cities, had refused to help. After taking part in the battle, Pheidippides offered to run to Athens, a distance of 26 miles, the quickest way to announce the victory. "We have won," he managed to whisper, as he fell forward to die in the arms of the citizens. Never, they thought, had man such a glorious death.
The Persians waited several years before sending their third expedition. Meantime the Greeks quarrelled. But Athens built a big navy and fortified her harbour. Then (480 B.C.) the Persian king, Xerxes, attacked Greece by land and sea, helped by the navy of the Phoenicians, who were jealous of the Greek merchants. In this great crisis the city of Sparta was chosen commander-in-chief.
The vast Persian army had already crossed from Asia. The only road into Greece was a narrow pass between mountain and sea called Thermopylae, the Gate of the Hot Springs. This narrow pass the brave Leonidas and 300 Spartans guarded. But a Greek traitor betrayed to the enemy a road by which they could stab the Spartans in the back. Next morning, after a heroic struggle, Leonidas and his brave men all lay dead. To the slain an inscription was set up:
"Four thousand warriors, flower of Pelops' land,
Did here against three hundred myriads stand."
And the brave Spartans had a special inscription for themselves:
"Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
A traitor had thus betrayed the brave defenders of Greece. "That foulest of all crimes," wrote the Greek traveller Pausanias, "the betrayal of native land and fellow-countrymen for personal gain, was fated to be the source of disasters to the Greeks, as it had been to others. The crime of treachery was known in Greece since time began, and never died out."
The way to Athens was now open. Its citizens withdrew the garrison from their citadel on the hill called the Acropolis. They burned the citadel, and the people fled to the island of Salamis near by. All seemed lost. But (on 20th September 480 B.C.) the Persians were forced to give battle in the strait between Salamis and the mainland, and the Athenian navy destroyed nearly all the enemy fleet. Xerxes had to return home. His general burned Athens, retreated north, and the united troops of the Greek cities defeated his army, three times as large as their own (479 B.C.).
These famous deeds are amongst the most impressive in the world's history, for they saved Greece and Europe from Asian rule. The Athenians gained great fame and felt themselves a race apart. All other peoples they called "barbarians."