How did Greek geography help Greece in the Persian wars?

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As the fifth century B.C. opened, the Persian Empire was moving westward in a quest to consolidate control over the whole of the Near East. Then, in 499 B.C., reacting against the demand for taxes and tribute, the Greek city of Miletus rose up against Persian rule. This revolt spread...

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As the fifth century B.C. opened, the Persian Empire was moving westward in a quest to consolidate control over the whole of the Near East. Then, in 499 B.C., reacting against the demand for taxes and tribute, the Greek city of Miletus rose up against Persian rule. This revolt spread from Miletus to the other parts of Ionia. Athens sent a naval force from across the Aegean Sea and led a small force that took the Persian provincial capital of Sardis in the same year.

In order to gain vengeance against Athens, the Persians, who lacked a substantial navy, would themselves have to cross the Aegean Sea. In 491 B.C., the Persian emperor Darius sent envoys to Athens, demanding its submission to Persian rule. The Athenians not only rejected Darius's offer but also killed the envoys. The Persian army landed at Marathon in 490 B.C., where the Athenians waited five days to engage the Persian forces for fear of being outflanked by the Persian force. There are different theories as to why the Persians themselves did not engage, including the idea that the marshy land on the plain took away one of the Persians' major advantages: their cavalry. In any case, being a great distance from home and having limited supplies, the Persians could not play the waiting game forever. Some historians believe that the Persian commanders decided to send the cavalry to Athens by sea to take the undefended city. This move may have precipitated and, indeed, necessitated the Athenian attack. The ensuing Athenian victory was as swift as it was unexpected. According to this narrative, the Athenian forces then marched back and were in a position to defend their city by the time the Persians with their cavalry completed their sea voyage.

Although geography certainly played a role in some of the main battles, so too did the tactics and strategy of the Greeks; therefore, geography cannot be seen in isolation. Darius's son Xerxes gathered a force of unprecedented size for a new invasion of the Greek mainland in 480 B.C. Rather than crossing the Aegean, the Persians approached from the north, where they had domains in Thrace and Macedonia. At the highly consequential Battle of Salamis, which prevented the invasion of the Peloponnese, the Persians were baited into entering the Straits of Salamis, where their large numbers served as a disadvantage: they became disoriented and fell prey to Greek attacks. At the Battle of Plataea, the Greeks resisted the temptation to attack the Persians on good cavalry terrain and instead, by retreating, took the fight to the hills and were victorious. So geography often helped in combination with Greek military strategizing and decision-making.

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In those days, it was very difficult to provide armies with the necessary supplies such as food and clothing. Armies, particularly invading armies, far from home, needed to live off the land. This is what the Persians had to do when they invaded Greece. Fortunately for the Greeks, the geography of their homeland came to the rescue, making it incredibly difficult for the invading Persians to conquer territory or establish themselves for any great length of time. For one thing, very little of the Greeks' land was fertile; that's why they were required to import a large quantity of grain by sea. This made it all the more important for the Greeks to achieve mastery of the sea as they needed to protect their vital trade routes. And the naval superiority of the Greeks was a significant factor in their victory over the Persians, despite their being heavily outnumbered.

Even if the Persians had been able to develop a sophisticated system of logistics, they would still have found it difficult to negotiate the rugged terrain that was such an important feature of the Greek landscape. The Persians' military tactics were simply unable to adapt to Greek territory. They were used to fighting on wide open plains with cavalry and light infantry. But the rocky, mountainous terrain of Greece made it virtually impossible for the Persians to conduct their normal method of warfare. The Greeks also enjoyed a huge advantage over the Persians in that they were used to fighting each other in a seemingly endless series of conflicts, stretching back many years. As a result, the Greeks had vast experience in fighting at close quarters on difficult terrain, experience that the Persians simply did not possess.

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The Persian Empire was separated from Greece by the Aegan Sea which proved to be among the most significant geographical challenges during the Greco-Persian Wars. The Persians lost a significant number of their combatants due to sea storms as they made their way to Greece. Crossing the Aegan also made their advance slow and noticeable to the Greeks, losing any opportunity for a surprise attack.

The terrain was also mountainous which proved a challenge for advancing Persian armies. The Greek armies received training in their natural environment which helped them get accustomed to the harsh terrain. This heightened level of awareness with regards to their environment, helped them in applying effective strategies against their opponents. For instance, during the Battle at Thermopylae, the Greeks were able to hold off the Persian Army by creating a blockade along the narrow pass. They did this successfully until they were betrayed by a fellow Greek, who showed the Persians an alternative route.

The Greeks were to some extent aided by the geography of their territory against the Persians, who were exposed to greater risks while navigating the waterways and were also unaccustomed to the mountainous terrain.

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