Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Persian War: A Battle of Wits

It is tempting to view the Greek victory in the Persian War as an achievement of superior power and fighting. However, this really wasn’t the case. The Greeks were victorious because they out-planned and out-thought the Persians, taking advantage of their own knowledge of the terrain and benefiting from Persians’ errors on the battlefield.

It is not up for debate who had the most obvious advantages going into the war; the Persian Empire was the largest and most powerful the world had known. There was a seemingly endless supply of human capital to fill the ranks of the Persian army. Furthermore, she enjoyed superior firepower compared to the Greeks, in terms of technology, their ships, for example, were faster, lighter, and more maneuverable than the Greeks’, as well as the sheer amount of firepower.

The Greeks, however, had some more important intangible advantages. First of all, they were fighting on and for their own homeland. They fought every battle knowing that a loss would bring the enemy that much closer to their own families and homes. The Greeks were fighting to save their own way of life. Additionally, the Greeks were fighting of their own accord. Because of the democratic structure of the city-states, the soldiers were fighting because they voted that this was the best course of action. This type of motivation can be a huge factor in the face of an enemy fighting simply because their despotic ruler sitting atop his throne on a nearby hilltop tells them to.

However, the real reason the Greeks won was their ability to engage the enemy at locations best suited for a Greek victory. The Greeks knew the terrain and they also knew their own militaristic limitations. This allowed them to choose battle sites that would minimize the advantages of the enemy. This was certainly the case at the battle of Salamis. The Greeks were aware of the superiority of the Persian fleet. Their ships were smaller and faster. The Greeks, on the other hand, were dealing with older, slower, less agile triremes. In order to make this as little of a factor as possible, they managed, through a little trickery on the part of Themistocles, to engage the Persians in the shallow bay of Salamis. By battling in such a shallow, closed-in area the speed and maneuverability of the Persian fleet was neutralized as best could be hoped for. They did not have to room to either get up to full speed or to take advantage of their full mobility. On top of that, the Persians, or at least the vast majority of them, were unable to swim. Essentially, once they were thrown overboard, they were as good as dead. So the Greeks didn’t necessarily have to destroy every enemy sailor, just get them off their ships. The Greeks, on the other hand, practiced quick turning and ramming maneuvers in preparations for just such a battle. In a smaller area, their slower speed never arose as a problem as no one had the room to get to full speed. Therefore, they were more prepared for a battle in such conditions because they chose them.

It is also interesting to look at the Battle of Thermopylae in such a light. Although the Greeks obviously lost the battle, it was only through a fortunate chance event for the Persians. Had Ephialtes not showed the Persians another way around the pass at Thermopylae they most likely would not have won. Up until that point, the Greeks were dominating the Persians, slaughtering the huge force as they funneled through the narrow pass. Once again, the Greeks, aware of the fact that they were vastly outnumbered, chose a location highly favorable to their smaller, more elite forces. The Persians’ size became a near non-factor as they had t0 squeeze through the Hot Gates. The Greeks were far more capable of picking off the Persian force one chariot at a time. This, again, is evidence of the Greeks’ cunning in making the most of a battle situation.

The Greeks were careful to draw the Persians into battle at locations where the Greeks were able to take advantage of their familiarity with the land and military forces involved. For this reason, it is valuable to look at the Persian War, not just as a battle of two great powers, but also as a battle of wits.


Tony Keen said...

I long a go came to the conclusion that Themistocles' 'trick' at Salamis is a figment of Themistoclean propaganda. The Persian fleet had no need of being fooled into preventing the Greeks escaping and having a battle at Salamis - this was always their strategic agenda. What the Persian fleet did at Salamis was exactly what they tried to do at Artemisum - close of the Greek fleet's escape route and then force battle. From this I conclude that Xerxes' object was to completely destroy the Greek navy. He was no more interested in fighting a battle off the Isthmus of Corinth than Themistocles was, though for different reasons - Themistocles because he thought the Greek would lose in the open waters (plus it would mean the abandonment of the Athenian population on Salamis, which would effectively end the war), Xerxes becuase the open waters did not offer the opportunity for the comprehensive victory he wanted.

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.