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The Graeco-Persian Wars: The Battle of Marathon

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The Graeco-Persian Wars
The Combatants | The Ionian Revolt | The Battle of Marathon | The Battle of Thermopylae | The Battle of Salamis | The Battle of Plataea | The Battle of Mycale

On, sons of the Hellenes! Fight for the freedom of your country! Fight for the freedom of your children and of your wives, for the gods of your fathers and for the sepulchres of your ancestors! All are now staked upon the strife!
- from The Persians, by Aeschylus

The Battle of Marathon was the Persian King Darius I's first major attempt to conquer Greece. In comparison to the great battles which would succeed it, it was, in terms of men involved, an engagement of medium size, but its significance in uniting the Greek city-states against Persia cannot be underestimated.


In 492 BC, two years before the battle, Darius's son-in-law and favourite general, Mardonius, led an army across the Hellespont, subjugated Thrace and forced Alexander I of Macedon to submit to Persian rule. This was to be a prelude to an invasion of Greece, giving Persia a land route by which to attack. However, the Persian fleet was destroyed by a storm, and the expedition had to be delayed. During this time, Darius fine-tuned his invasion plans.

In Athens, Militiades was one of the new powerful men in the democratic assembly. He had once been a Persian vassal, but had joined the Ionian side during the Ionian revolt. He fled to Athens when the revolt looked set to fail, and had risen through the ranks until he was elected one of the ten strategoi (generals) in 490. However, his rise to power was not universally approved of among the Athenians. Hippias, the Athenian tyrant who had been deposed in 510BC, told Darius that the powerful family of the Alcmaeonidae were not only staunch opposers of Militiades, but supporters of the reinstation of Hippias. They were even willing to pander to Persia's will to get what they wanted, in return for an excusal of their role in the Ionian Revolt. If Darius could take advantage of this situation and cause Athens to revolt, he would have eliminated one of the two most powerful cities, leaving only Sparta to offer meaningful opposition. First though, he had to incite the population and disable the Athenian army.

The plan was to take the city of Eretria, which was a relatively weak city and would offer little resistance. This would hopefully cow the Athenians. An army under Artaphernes, son of the satrap of Lydia; and Datis, a Median admiral, would then land in the Bay of Marathon1 to threaten Athens itself. Mardonius had been injured in the previous campaign and so was not included in the expedition.

Next, the expedition was tasked with subjugating the Aegean so the campaign against Greece could have a firmer base. Naxos was to be the first to fall, as revenge for the humiliation of the failed invasion there ten years before. The city of Naxos was burned and its population sold into slavery. The next on the list was Delos. By now, Datis had shown that he meant business; he was not going to turn the useful fear and awe he inspired into the kind of hatred which would only serve to inspire freedom fighters. He showed great mercy at Delos and demonstrated his respect for the Greek gods by burning huge mounds of frankincense before the temple of Apollo, before making a tour of the island to impose his authority. It was late July when the expedition reached Euboea.

When the Eretrians learned of the impending attack they appealed to Athens for help. Athens in turn sent couriers to Sparta and probably Plataea, a neighbouring city with which Athens had good relations. Sparta absolved themselves from sending immediate aid, citing the Carneia festival as an excuse. Spartan soldiers could not go to war until after the full moon.

While Artaphernes stayed to command the siege of Eretria with a small force, Datis crossed to the Greek mainland with the majority of the army. When news came to Athens of the Persian landings at Marathon, the call to arms was issued and 10,000 men were told to 'take food with them and march'. The strategos Militiades formulated a plan and argued in the Assembly against the instinct of the Athenian, to hide behind the walls of the city. He told the Athenians that if they marched out immediately, they would deny the Persians any chance of expansion in Attica, where the mobility of their cavalry would prove to be a greater problem. By holding them on the shoreline, the Athenians would be taking the initiative. Besides, Athens was full of potential supporters of the Persians, and it would only take one traitor to open the city gates for any siege to be over. The Athenian army, commanded by Callimachus (the war archon or polemarch, supreme commander of the city's forces) and the ten strategoi, marched out to meet the Persians. The anti-Persian sentiment was strong in the army. This is what Herodotus had to say on the matter:

Liberty and Equality of civic rights are brave spirit stirring things, and they who, while under the yoke of a despot, had been no better men of war than any of their neighbours, as soon as they were free, became the foremost men of all. For each felt that in fighting for a free commonwealth, he fought for himself and whatever he took in hand he was willing to do the work thoroughly.
When Callimachus heard of the Persian landings at Marathon, he set up camp in the valley of Avlona at the shrine of Heracles, standing between the Persians and Athens. It was here where they were joined by the entire muster of Plataea, some 1,000 men. The Athenians still hoped to have Spartan soldiers to help them before they joined battle, so they did not attack. This stalemate continued for eight days.

The Greek Army

As has been mentioned, the Greek army was nearly completely made up of Athenian soldiers (between 9,000 and 10,000). These were joined by the thousand men from Plataea (the city's entire army). All of them were heavy hoplites (soldiers in heavy chest, leg and head armour with large shields, javelins, heavy swords and spears).

The Persian Army

The Persian force consisted of around 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, commanded by Datis the Median. The majority of the infantry would have had very little or no armour, and fought mostly as archers. The cavalry were the real killers of the army.

The Battle

The Athenian army was camped on high ground, with a sacred grove acting as a screen against the Persian cavalry. Datis must have been hoping that the Greek army would fall apart of its own accord through in-fighting and treachery, but with news that the Spartans would be on their way, Greek resolve to fight was strong, despite the fact that no hoplite army had ever defeated an army of the Great King of Persia in the open field.

However, on the ninth day, 12 September, news came to the Athenians that Eretria had fallen through treachery. The Athenians, rather than waiting for the Persian army to be reinforced by Artaphernes' men, decided, after heavy deliberation, to attack. Militiades was the main advocate of this decision, and did a lot of the work in persuading the other generals that it was the right course of action. Callimachus, it seems, saw no problem in acknowledging Militiades's abilities as a general. After all, Militiades was a veteran of countless battles during the Ionian revolt, and famed throughout Greece as a bulwark against Persia.

The Greeks constructed barricades from felled trees to protect themselves against the numerous Persian cavalry, and under cover of night, advanced slowly across the plain of Marathon, moving their barricades as they went. The Persians had chosen the battlefield so their horsemen would have plenty of room to manoeuvre an attack upon the Greeks while they marched across the open ground, but now that advantage was being lost.

On 13 September, word reached the Greeks that the Persian cavalry was for unknown reasons2 away from the camp, and Militiades attacked. He deployed his forces relatively thin in the centre, perhaps halving the usual number of ranks to four, allowing him to heavily reinforce either wing with the best soldiers. The generals then took their positions in the line. Callimachus occupied the customary position of the war archon on the right; Themistocles (like Militiades, a military genius and a rising star in Athens) was in the centre; the Plataeans took the left flank. Then Militiades, who was allotted overall command of the force that day, gave the command: 'At them!'

Greek historians say that the Greek hoplites, despite being weighed down by 70 pounds of armour, covered the gap between the armies of eight stadia (about 1,420 metres) at a fast run to prevent the enemy mowing them down with their numerous archers. This is almost certainly an exaggeration, although it would have made sense to attack quickly to neutralise the threat of archers and to catch the Persians unawares. This meant the Greek phalanx formation would probably be a little disordered by the time it reached the enemy, but it was preferable to allowing the archers to pick them off at range. The centre of the army charged a little behind the wings due to the heavy fire from the Persian archers.

When the two lines met, the Persian army centre, composed of heavily-armoured Persians and axe-wielding Saka from the Aral Sea area, managed to break through the Greek line, but as these men retreated the pincers on either wing charged into the enemy horde from both flanks, causing the entire battle formation to collapse and a slaughter to ensue. The centre of the army rallied after retreating a short distance and resumed the attack to join in the destruction of the Persian force. The cavalry probably arrived as the battle was ending, but at a point where they could no longer change the outcome. The pursuit of the retreating army continued, and some ended up trapped in the marshes north of the beachhead, while others managed to get to the ships.

The Athenians were hot on their heels, and many more Persians died in the shallows, ran through by Greek spears or drowned. Despite this, the Persians showed they were not completely defeated. They turned at bay in the shallows, and it was there that Callimachus and one of the strategoi died. The Athenians captured seven ships, but the rest escaped. At the end of the day, 6,400 Persians lay dead on the field outside the village of Marathon, while the Greeks had lost only 192 of their citizens (though Herodotus, who supplies these figures, may be wrong - the numbers are certainly hard to believe). The Athenian dead were buried under a huge mound, which stands nine metres high even today.

Legend has it that while the Athenians were celebrating, the famous runner Pheidippides stripped off his armour and ran the 26 miles (42 kilometres) to Athens, where he died of exhaustion with the words: 'We are victorious!' on his lips. In fact, it is more probable that Pheidippides was actually the Athenian messenger who ran to Sparta for help when the Persians landed. This means he would have covered 150 miles (240 kilometres) in two days. The origin of the legend was probably a combination of the famous athleticism of Pheidippides and the fast Athenian march back to the city to defend it from the Persian fleet. In 1896 Frenchman Michel Bréal proposed a marathon race for that year's Olympic Games, and it has been with us ever since.


The remnants of the Persian army sailed to Athens after the defeat, hoping to take the city by surprise. However, the Athenians marched quickly down the coast to oppose the landing. In the end, Artaphernes and Datis retreated across the Aegean. The promised men from Sparta, some 2,000 of them, arrived far too late to take part in the battle. They toured the battlefield and agreed than the Athenians had won a victory for the whole of Greece. This was something the people of Athens never tired of reminding the rest of Greece. They who, with their new democracy, had stood up for their liberty, were victorious. Although this boast may have grown tiresome, it served to stiffen resolve throughout Greece. The Spartans, examining the bodies of the Persians, saw nothing to worry them. They saw only light infantry - meat for the phalanx to grind.

Militiades was hailed as a hero, but the people of Athens were notoriously fickle. In 489 BC he was wounded during a battle against a city in the Aegean. His reputation was destroyed, and a young politician named Xanthippus3 accused him of deceiving the Athenian people. His previous fame saved Militiades' life, but he was heavily fined, and a few weeks later the gangrene in his leg wound finished him off. However, the Athenians wanted to keep the families on their toes and so, in the period after Marathon, ostracised many of the most prominent aristocrats in the city. Themistocles, wily as he was, survived this and continued to press for investment in a navy. Aristeides4, who had fought beside him in the phalanx, became his bitter rival and nemesis.

By showing that the Persian war machine was far from invincible, the victory at Marathon caused many populations subject to Persia to revolt. The general chaos from this meant Persia was not able to look beyond its own borders for several years. It also encouraged anti-Persian tendencies among the rest of the Greeks. Next time the Greeks and Persians met in battle there would be a whole league of cities against the Empire.

Importance in World History

It was John Stuart Mill who said that the Battle of Marathon was a more important event in British history than the Battle of Hastings. If the Greek army had been defeated at Marathon, then who knows how world history might have panned out? We might not have had any of the great Greek innovations passed down to us today. The great Greek playwright Aeschylus was present at the battle, and his death would have changed the development of Greek tragedy as an art form. Though it is easy to ask 'What if?' of every major event in history, the Athenian victory was clearly very important, both for Ancient Greece and the world in the future.

1It was also where Hippias's father, Pisistratus, landed and took Athens, becoming its tyrant.2It is speculated that the Persian army was actually about to leave Marathon to attack Athens' harbour, and the cavalry were the first to board the ships. If this is the case, the Persians would have also been taken by surprise as they were readying to march back to the ships.3An Alcmaeonid - a powerful family engaged in a perpetual feud with the Pisistratids, with whom Militiades was connected. Xanthippus would later become admiral of the fleet after the Battle of Salamis.4Aristeides would later become the effective leader of Athens after Themistocles' fall from grace, and commanded the army while Xanthippus controlled the navy.

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