Ancient Civilizations: Greek Wars

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13127

How did the Greek city-states stop the mighty Persian empire? How did 7,000 Greeks hold off 100,000 Persians for days? And why didn't the Greeks stay united instead of turning to fight each other?



learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Do you like to run? Would you like to run a marathon someday?

  • A marathon is a race of 42.2 kilometers or 26.2 miles!

That's a very long run. Where did we get the idea for a marathon, and where does the word come from? And what does any of this have to do with Greek wars?

Watch and find out!

Authentic Phidippides Run from Athenian Runners Club:

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The ancient Greeks are known for their military might, beating off the huge Persian empire in epic battles in which they were greatly outnumbered.

In a previous Related Lesson in this Ancient Civilizations: Greece series, found in the right-hand sidebar, you learned that the citizens of the Greek city-state of Sparta took their military training very seriously. And the citizens of Athens took their ship-building and navy operations very seriously, too. Together, they made an almost unbeatable force!

Unfortunately, they did not work together for very long.

Let's take a look at some of the battles the Greeks fought together against the mighty Persians.

Persian Wars

The Persian Wars lasted from 490-449 BC. There were two Persian kings, Darius and then his son Xerxes, who were determined to take over the Greek peninsula.

King Darius of Persia tried to conquer Greece in 490 BC when he landed his ships carrying 15,000 soldiers at Marathon Bay.

Marathon, Greece

An army of 10,000 Athenian soldiers were there ready to fight them. You already know a piece of the story of Marathon from the video about Phidippides' run. Now, discover the rest of the story.


Watch The Battle of Marathon from the PBS series The Greeks:

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  • According to the video, what was the key to the Greeks' victory at Marathon?


Ten years after Marathon, King Darius' son Xerxes made another attempt to conquer Greece for Persia. He brought a force of over 100,000 soldiers to Greece and had no doubt that he would wipe out the Greek forces and greatly expand his empire.

His soldiers met the Greeks at Thermopylae, a narrow pass between two mountains. (Thermopylae is Greek for "hot gates." It was named for the hot springs in that area). They thought the narrow space would be an advantage for them. They were right!

Thermopylae, Greece

The Greek army was led by the Spartan king Leonidas and his 300 Spartan soldiers, who were joined by other Greeks for a total of about 7,000 men. How could 7,000 men hold off over 100,000?

Watch a portion of Decisive Battles - Battle of Thermopylae from Prince Corsica to find out.

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  • According to the video, how were the Greeks able to hold off the Persians?
  • Why did they finally lose the battle?

The expression "a Pyrrhic victory" means a victory that takes such a heavy toll, it's more like a defeat.

  • Was the Persian victory at Thermopylae a Pyrrhic victory?

While the Persians did win the battle, they were stunned by the courage and persistence of the Spartans who fought to the death at Thermopylae. The Athenians then began to prepare for the next phase of the war, as the Persian army made its way toward Athens.


The next major battle took place at Salamis, and it was a sea battle. Watch The Battle of Salamis - Athens vs Persia - Ancient History #08 - See U in History to learn more.

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  • According to the video, what was the key to the Greek's victory at Salamis?

After Salamis, Xerxes and most of his army returned to Persia leaving a general named Mardonius to finish off the Greeks.


But Xerxes had underestimated the Greeks again, and Mardonius was not able to finish them off. At Plataea, the united Greeks killed Mardonius and destroyed his army, saving Greece from being overrun by the Persians.

So, after the Greeks won this great victory, they decided they should always work together to defend their freedom, right?

Wrong! Unfortunately, they did not.

The Peloponnesian War

Not long after defeating the Persians, the Spartans and Athenians began to fight each other. The Spartans started to think that Athens was getting too wealthy and powerful. They feared that the Athenians would try to take over the other city-states.

From 431 to 404 BC, Athens and Sparta fought each other in the Peloponnesian War. It was named after the Peloponnese, a peninsula in southern Greece.

Peloponnese, Greece

The first part of the war lasted 10 years, with one side winning the land battles and the other side the sea battles.

  • Can you guess which side dominated each area?

Yes, the Spartans were the victors on land, and the Athenians at sea. After a few years of war, they agreed on a truce. However, they were soon at it again.

Finally, the Spartans were able to build some warships and beat the Athenians on land and at sea. Then it was all over for Athens. The Spartans took over their city and ended Athenian democracy.

  • It's too bad those great city-states couldn't keep working together, isn't it?

Now, march over to the Got It? section, where you'll see how well you remember the military leaders discussed above and write a newspaper report about a great battle!

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