In 480 BC, Persian forces led by King Xerxes I burned down the city of Athens, as well as the Acropolis, in what is called “the Persian Destruction of Athens.”
The destruction of the great city took place during the Persian Wars, a series of conflicts which began in 499 BC and lasted until 449 BC.
Amidst the clashes during the 50-year war, there was an interbellum period from 490 to 480 during which both sides accumulated forces and began plotting their next moves.
One of the key battles which took place after this interbellum period is the famed Battle of Thermopylae, in which the vastly outnumbered Spartan forces fought, and eventually fell to, the massive Persian army in the summer of 480 BC.
Archaeologists uncovered treasures in pits dug after Acropolis and Athens burned during Persian invasion
Greek archaeologist Panagiotis Kavvadias, with the assistance of architects Wilhelm Dörpfeld and Georg Kawerau, uncovered some of the most famous archaic and early classical Greek sculptures in history–the Kritios Boy, the Calf Bearer, and the Angelitos Athena–amongst the items buried on the Acropolis during excavations conducted from 1885 to 1890.
German archeologists also uncovered countless masterpieces in these incredible holes filled with ancient artifacts. The finds were so abundant that the Germans coined all the sculptures, architectural fragments, and other objects found on the Acropolis “Perserschutt,” or “Persian debris.’
Archaeologists were able to determine that the artifacts found in the holes were likely placed there in the wake of the Persian destruction of the city as there were clear signs that they had been burned and struck forcefully.
In addition to destroying and damaging countless sculptures, the Persian forces also took some masterworks back with them. Xerxes himself is said to have taken back a bronze sculpture of the “Tyrant Slayers” Harmodius and Aristogeiton and displayed it in the city of Susa.
When Alexander the Great invaded the city two hundred years later, he was able to bring back the bronze statue to Greece.
After the city was burned, the Persian forces faced a stunning loss in the Battle of Salamis, and much of the army retreated back to Persia. The only forces that stayed in Greece were under the control of Mardonius, who left Attica and camped out with his troops in northern Greece.
Thus, the Athenians were able to safely return to their city, which is when they buried the desecrated items on the Acropolis and began to plan the reconstruction of their city.
This relative peace did not last long, however, as Mardonius commenced a second invasion of the city in 479 BC after a peace deal between the Greeks and the Persians fell through.
Once again, Athenians evacuated the city, and the Persians completely demolished anything they had managed to rebuild and whatever survived the first destruction of the city.
Herodotus describes massive destruction in the wake of the second invasion, writing that Mardonius “burnt Athens, and utterly overthrew and demolished whatever wall or house or temple was left standing.”
After the Greeks won the Battle of Plataea later that year, they were able to move back to Athens and begin rebuilding the city once again under the guidance of Themistocles.
The great Athenian leader used the remnants of the Hectompedon and the temple to Athena to build the North Wall of the Acropolis, and spolia, or pieces of other older structures, were also used to build the famous Themistoclean Wall, which surrounded ancient Athens.
The Parthenon that stands on the Acropolis to this day was built decades later in 438 BC under the leadership of Pericles.
Alexander the Great burned down palace of Persepolis in retaliation
The Persians were not the only ancient forces to burn down important sites during war. In fact, Greek forces under Alexander the Great razed the palace of Persepolis in 330 BC while conquering the Middle East.
According to ancient historians such as Plutarch, Arrian of Nicodema, and Diodorus Siculus, the magnificent palace of Persepolis was burned as retribution for the Persian destruction of Athens over a century earlier.
They describe a scene in which Alexander burned the site after drinking and reveling with his troops and his courtesan Thaïs, who traveled with him throughout Asia.
In many sources, Thaïs seems to push Alexander to do it, and Diodorus even claims she was one of the first to set the fire:
“Thaïs the courtesan was 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,” he wrote.
According to Diodorus, one of Alexander’s generals Parmenion had previously advised his ruler not to burn the palace, but to preserve it, as it was not truly his property to destroy. He also believed that it would give the Persians the idea that Alexander was an unjust conqueror.