Achaemenid destruction of Athens
Part of the Greco-Persian Wars

Part of the archaeological remains called Perserschutt, or "Persian rubble": remnants of the destruction of Athens by the armies of Xerxes. Photographed in 1866, just after excavation.
Date480 and 479 BCE
Location37°59′02″N 23°43′40″E / 37.983972°N 23.727806°E / 37.983972; 23.727806

Persian victory

  • Destruction of Athens
  • Massacre of Athenians
Athenian city state Achaemenid Empire
Achaemenid destruction of Athens is located in Greece
Achaemenid destruction of Athens
Location of Athens

The Achaemenid destruction of Athens was carried out by the Achaemenid Army of Xerxes I during the Second Persian invasion of Greece, and occurred in two phases over a period of two years, in 480–479 BCE.

First phase: Xerxes I (480 BCE)

"The Citadel at Athens" at the time of Xerxes (1900 reconstitution)

In 480 BCE, after the victory of Xerxes I at the Battle of Thermopylae, all of Boeotia fell to the Achaemenid Army. The two cities that had resisted Xerxes, Thespiae and Plataea, were captured and razed. Attica was also left open to invasion, and the remaining population of Athens was thus evacuated, with the aid of the Allied fleet, to Salamis.[1] The Peloponnesian Allies began to prepare a defensive line across the Isthmus of Corinth, building a wall, and demolishing the road from Megara, thereby abandoning Athens to the Persians.[2]

Athens fell a first time in September 480 BCE.[3] The small number of Athenians who had barricaded themselves on the Acropolis were eventually defeated, and Xerxes then ordered Athens to be torched.[4] The Acropolis was razed, and the Old Temple of Athena and the Older Parthenon destroyed:[5]

Those Persians who had come up first betook themselves to the gates, which they opened, and slew the suppliants; and when they had laid all the Athenians low, they plundered the temple and burnt the whole of the acropolis.

— Herodotus VIII.53[6]

Shortly thereafter, Xerxes I lost a large part of his fleet to the Greeks in the Battle of Salamis. With the Persians' naval superiority removed, Xerxes feared that the Greeks might sail to the Hellespont and destroy the pontoon bridges.[7] According to Herodotus, Mardonius volunteered to remain in Greece and complete the conquest with a hand-picked group of troops, while advising Xerxes to retreat to Asia with the bulk of the army.[8] All of the Persian forces abandoned Attica, with Mardonius over-wintering in Boeotia and Thessaly.[9]

Some Athenians were thus able to return to their burnt-out city for the winter.[9] They would have to evacuate again in front of a second advance by Mardonius in June 479 BCE.[3]

Second phase: Mardonius (479 BCE)

Main Achaemenid troops under Mardonius
Main troops of Achaemenid general Mardonius, according to Herodotus: Persians, Medians, Sakas, Bactrians and Indians,[10][11][12] illustrated in the list of troops by ethnicity, on the tomb of Xerxes I at Naqsh-e Rostam[13]

Mardonius remained with the rest of the Achaemenid troops in northern Greece. He selected some of the best troops to remain with him in Greece, especially Immortals, the Medes, the Sacae, the Bactrians and the Indians. Herodotus described the composition of the principal troops of Mardonius:[12][11]

Mardonius there chose out first all the Persians called Immortals, save only Hydarnes their general, who said that he would not quit the king's person; and next, the Persian cuirassiers, and the thousand horse, and the Medes and Sacae and Bactrians and Indians, alike their footmen and the rest of the horsemen. He chose these nations entire; of the rest of his allies he picked out a few from each people, the goodliest men and those that he knew to have done some good service... Thereby the whole number, with the horsemen, grew to three hundred thousand men.

— Herodotus VIII, 113.[10][12]
Answer of Aristides to the ambassadors of Mardonius: "As long as the sun holds to its present course, we shall never come to terms with Xerxes".[14]

Mardonius remained in Thessaly, knowing an attack on the isthmus was pointless, while the Allies refused to send an army outside the Peloponessus.[15]

Mardonius moved to break the stalemate, by offering peace, self-government and territorial expansion to the Athenians (with the aim of thereby removing their fleet from the Allied forces), using Alexander I of Macedon as an intermediary.[16] The Athenians made sure that a Spartan delegation was on hand to hear the offer, but rejected it.[16] Athens was thus evacuated again, and the Persians marched south and re-took possession of it.[16]

Mardonius brought even more thorough destruction to the city, and some authors considered that the city was truly razed to the ground during this second phase.[3] According to Herodotus, after the negotiations broke off:

(Mardonius) burnt Athens, and utterly overthrew and demolished whatever wall or house or temple was left standing

— Herodotus IX.13[17][3]


Numerous remains of statues vandalized by the Achaemenids have been found, known collectively as the "Perserschutt", or "Persian rubble":

The statue Nike of Callimachus, which was erected next to the Older Parthenon in honor of Callimachus and the victory at the Battle of Marathon, was severely damaged by the Achaemenids. The statue depicts Nike (Victory), in the form of a woman with wings, on top of an inscribed column. Its height is 4.68 meters and was made of Parian marble. The head of the statue and parts of the torso and hands were never recovered.

Xerxes also took away some of the statuary, such as The Tyrant-slayers, a bronze statue of Harmodius and Haristogiton which was recovered by Alexander the Great in the Achaemenid capital of Susa two centuries later.[18]

Foundations of the Old Temple of Athena, destroyed by the armies of Xerxes I


Athenians rebuilding their city under the direction of Themistocles

See also: Themistoclean Wall

The Achaemenids were decisively beaten at the ensuing Battle of Plataea, and the Greeks were able to recover Athens. They had to rebuild everything, including a new Parthenon on the Acropolis. These efforts at reconstruction were led by Themistocles in the autumn of 479 BC, who reused remains of the Older Parthenon and Old Temple of Athena to reinforce the walls of the Acropolis, which are still visible today in the North Wall of the Acropolis.[19][20] His priority was probably to repair the walls and build up the defenses of the city, before even endeavouring to rebuild temples.[21] Themistocles in particular is considered as the builder of the northern wall of the Acropolis incorporating the debris of the destroyed temples, while Cimon is associated with the later building of the southern wall.[22]

The Themistoclean Wall, named after Themistocles, was built right after the war with Persia, in the hope of defending against further invasion. A lot of this building efforts was accomplished using spolia, remains of the destructions from the preceding conflict.

The Parthenon was only rebuilt much later, after more than 30 years had elapsed, by Pericles, possibly because of an original vow that the Temples destroyed by the Achaemenids should not be rebuilt.

Retaliatory burning of the Palace of Persepolis

Alexander the Great lifting Thais holding a torch, in "The Burning of Persepolis" (L'incendie de Persepolis), Georges Rochegrosse, 1890

In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great burned down the palace of Persepolis, the principal residence of the defeated Achaemenid dynasty, after a drinking party and at the instigation of Thais. According to Plutarch and Diodorus, this was intended as a retribution for Xerxes' burning of the old Temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens (the site of the extant Parthenon) in 480 BC during the Persian Wars.

When the king [Alexander] had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession in honour of Dionysus. Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the comus to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Thaïs the courtesan leading the whole performance. She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport.

— Diodorus of Sicily (XVII.72)


  1. ^ Herodotus VIII, 41
  2. ^ Holland, p. 300
  3. ^ a b c d Lynch, Kathleen M. (2011). The Symposium in Context: Pottery from a Late Archaic House Near the Athenian Agora. ASCSA. pp. 20–21, and Note 37. ISBN 9780876615461.
  4. ^ Holland, pp. 305–306
  5. ^ Barringer, Judith M.; Hurwit, Jeffrey M. (2010). Periklean Athens and Its Legacy: Problems and Perspectives. University of Texas Press. p. 295. ISBN 9780292782907.
  6. ^ LacusCurtius Herodotus Book VIII: Chapter 53.
  7. ^ Herodotus VIII, 97
  8. ^ Herodotus VIII, 100
  9. ^ a b Holland, pp. 327–329
  10. ^ a b LacusCurtius • Herodotus — Book VIII: Chapters 97‑144. p. Herodotus VIII, 113.
  11. ^ a b Shepherd, William (2012). Plataea 479 BCE: The most glorious victory ever seen. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 25. ISBN 9781849085557.
  12. ^ a b c Tola, Fernando (1986). "India and Greece before Alexander". Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. 67 (1/4): 165. JSTOR 41693244.
  13. ^ LacusCurtius • Herodotus — Book IX: Chapters 1‑89. pp. IX–31/32.
  14. ^ The Histories. Penguin UK. 2013. p. 484. ISBN 9780141393773.
  15. ^ Holland, pp. 333–335
  16. ^ a b c Holland, pp. 336–338
  17. ^ LacusCurtius Herodotus Book IX: Chapter 13.
  18. ^ D'Ooge, Martin Luther (1909). The acropolis of Athens. New York : Macmillan. p. 64.
  19. ^ Shepherd, William (2012). Plataea 479 BC: The most glorious victory ever seen. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 88. ISBN 9781849085557.
  20. ^ D'Ooge, Martin Luther (1909). The acropolis of Athens. New York : Macmillan. pp. 60–80.
  21. ^ D'Ooge, Martin Luther (1909). The acropolis of Athens. New York : Macmillan. pp. 64–65.
  22. ^ D'Ooge, Martin Luther (1909). The acropolis of Athens. New York : Macmillan. p. 66.