Read this article to learn about the role of Athens in the Persian war.
In contradistinction to the petty, selfish policy of the Spartans the Athenians all throughout the course of the Persian war followed a truly Pan-Hellenic policy and suffered greatly for the common cause.
At the time of the Ionian revolt, it was Athens that sided with the Asiatic Greeks while Sparta refused to render any help. It may be said that the Athenian part in the burning of Sardis kindled the wrath of the Persian king and the Hellas had to pay for it.
But it must be remembered that the Persian imperial policy would not have left European Greeks outside its purview and if Athens only hastened the process by joining in the Ionian revolt she not only suffered most for it but also worked for the defence of the whole of Greece and when Sparta would not move for the liberation of the Greeks who were still under the Persian yoke after the battle of Mycale, Athens continued to fight with the Persians till every Asiatic Greek had earned his freedom.
In the battle of Marathon, the Athenians had to fight single handed against the host of the Persians, for the Spartans failed to send in their promised help on the plea of the festival of Carnea and when they actually did, the battle had already been fought and won chiefly due to the pluck and courage of Miltiades.
When the Persians repeated their attack Sparta came forward with help but kept the command both of the land-forces and the navy to themselves although it was Athens who had contributed the largest number of ships to the common naval force. It was however due to the Athenian insistence that the Spartans did not withdraw to the Isthmus of Corinth which to their mind was the most convenient point of defence for Sparta and the Peloponnesus.
The defeat of the Greeks at Thermopylae led to the Persian occupation of Athens. The Athenians had to withdraw from the city with their women and children to the island of Salamis where it was due to a stratagem of Themistocles that the Greek could win a signal naval victory.
The Spartan naval commanders were willing to withdraw to the Isthmus after the battle of Artemisium. This would mean leaving the northern states like Athens, Megara, Aegina, etc., to the mercy of the Persians. It was Themistocles who by having recourse to a stratagem forced a battle on the Greeks in the narrow strait of Salamis and won the day. Salamis bay was suitable for the light and comparatively small ships of the Greeks but most disadvantageous for the large ships of the Persians. The result was, as Themistocles anticipated, a heavy loss to the Persians.
The next attempt on Greece by Persia was preceded by an overture to the Athenians. But the Athenians rejected it with contempt, for as the Athenians declared no amount of gold or territory could seduce the Athenians on to the Persian side. But while the Athenians were prepared to face the enemy the Spartans were delaying the promised help. It was this delay that compelled the Athenians to withdraw to Salamis once again with their women and children and Mardonius occupied the city.
But Mardonius expectation of winning over Athens to his side proved false and he withdrew. But the Spartans had to be forced by Themistocles to come forward in support of Athens by giving out that he would otherwise join hands with the Persians and in that event Peloponnesus would not be saved. The battle of Plataea that followed ended in Greek victory.
This was followed by a Greek victory at Mycale which freed the Asiatic Greeks from the Persian yoke. Here also the policy of Athenians was to remain inactive at sea until a battle had been fought on land. ‘For a naval victory would probably have meant the retreat of the Spartans from the northern Greece, on the calculation that the enemy would not attack Peloponnesus without the cooperation of the fleet.’
The subsequent conduct of Athens was consistent with her Pan-Hellenic policy. She fought against the Persians up to the battle of Eurymedon which freed the last Greek from the Persian yoke. The reward of Athenian policy was to be seen in the growth of the Athenian empire and the eventual subjugation of the Persian empire itself by Alexander, a Macedonian Greek.