Battle of Marathon, 490 BC
The Battle of Marathon took place during the first Persian invasion of Greece, fought between the combined forces of Athens and Plataea against King Darius’ Persian army. Darius’ attempted to invade Greece as he was angered after the Athenians had sent aid to Ionia in a revolt against the Persians. Once the Persian armies had defeated the Ionian revolt, they turned their attention on Greece, first capturing Eretria (who had helped the Athenian and Ionian forces) and finally sailing into Marathon for vengeance. Though heavily outnumbered, the Greek forces managed to defeat the lightly armed Persian army after five days of stalemate, expelling Darius and his army.
Though Darius worked on rebuilding his army for another invasion, the second invasion didn’t occur until his death and was led by his son, Xerxes. The Battle of Marathon was significant in showing the world that the Persians could be defeated. It also led to the eventual Greek triumph in the subsequent Persian wars. More interestingly, the battle also created marathon running, which was inspired by an inaccurate story about a Greek messenger running to Athens from Marathon with news of victory, and was subsequently introduced in the 1896 Athens Olympics.
Battle of Salamis, 480 BC
Fought in September 480 BC, the Battle of Salamis was a significant – if not the most significant – naval battle between the Greek city-states and their perpetual enemy, Persia. The battle took place in the strait between Piraeus and Salamis Island, near Athens. Although heavily outnumbered, and having lost previous two battles, the Greek Allied navy was urged by the Athenian general, Themistocles, to engage the Persian fleet into battle again. The Persian navy, led by Xerxes, sailed into the strait in an attempt to block both entrances. However, the cramped conditions made it hard to maneuver and forced the large Persian fleet to become disorganized. The Greek navy used this to their advantage, forming a line and sinking or capturing most of the Persian fleet. The defeat at Salamis shifted the war in Greece’s favor, and led to Persia’s ultimate demise. Historians tend to agree that the Battle of Salamis was the single most important battle in human history. They assert that the win influenced the growth and preservation of Athenian democracy and influenced Western civilization’s core ideas of freedom and individual rights.
Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC
Another battle against the Persian invasion, the Battle of Thermopylae has become the stuff of legends, cementing the Spartan name in the collective consciousness. It was fought under the guidance of the Spartan King Leonidas and took place simultaneously with the naval battle at Artemisium. While a clash between a 7,000 strong Greek force and a 100,000 to 300,000 strong Persian force ensued, King Leonidas led a small force to block the only road that the Persians could use to enter the area.
Two days into the battle, however, the Greek army was betrayed by a local resident who told the Persians about a small secret passage that led behind the Greek lines. When King Leonidas became aware of this plan, he led a small group of fighters to the passage to block the oncoming army. Though Persia won the battle, the heroic deeds of those who fought were cemented in history.
Battle of Chaeronea, 338 BC
The decline of the Greek empire and the subsequent Macedonian rule under Alexander the Great, was a direct result of the Battle of Chaeronea and was fought in 338 BC between the Greek allied city-states and the forces of Philip II of Macedon. Though Philip had brought peace to the internally warring Greece, he had also claimed himself as the leader of the nation – much to the chagrin of the independent and patriotic Greeks. As Athens attempted to break away from his leadership, and formed an alliance with a city Philip was trying to seize, he declared war on the state. The battle was at a stalemate for several months before Philip’s forces advanced into the region and attempted to take Thebes and Athens. The large Macedonian army easily crushed the Greek forces. The battle is commonly seen as one of the most important in the Ancient World. The Greek city-states were defeated, Athens’ power dwindled and the country came under the rule of the Macedonians for centuries.