Date: August 490 B.C.
Attica, 40 km NE of Athens, Greece
At Marathon we stood alone against Persia. And our courage
in that mighty endeavor defeated the men of 46 nations.
(THE ATHENIANS CLAIM THE PLACE OF HONOUR AT PLATAEA) HERODOTUS
was a battle of opposites. A tiny democratic city-state opposed
a despotic empire hundreds of times its size. One army was almost
entirely composed of armored infantrymen, the other of horsemen
and archers. This clash of cultures was profoundly to affect
the subsequent development of Western civilization.
For the city-state
was Athens, where a functioning democracy had been created just
two decades previously. The previous ruler of Athens,
Hippias, had fled to the court of Darius
1 (521 -486 BC), king of Persia, whose empire stretched from
the Aegean Sea to the banks of the Indus. Until they were conquered
by Persia, the Greek colonies in Asia Minor had been independent.
Unsurprisingly, they felt a greater affinity with their former
homeland of Greece than with their ruler thousands of miles
away in Persia. The Greeks of Asia Minor rebelled against the
Persians, and were assisted by Athenian soldiers who captured
and burned Sardis, the capital of Lydia, in 498. Herodotus the
historian tells us:
'Darius enquired who
these Athenians were, and on being told ... he prayed "Grant
to me, God, that might punish them", and he set a slave to tell
him three times as he sat down to dinner "Master, remember Athenians".'
Preparations for battle
crushing the rebellion in Asia Minor, in 490 B.C a Persian
invasion force landed at
Marathon, some 40 km (25 miles) east of
Athens. Modern research has moved the date of this landing to
August from the traditional date in early September. The size
of the invading force is uncertain, with some estimates as high
as 100,000 men. Probably there were about 20,000 men, including
oarsmen and cavalry. Marathon was chosen because it was sufficiently
far from Athens for an orderly disembarkation, and because
the flat ground suited the Persian cavalry, which outmatched
the Greek horse.
shown on a polychrome brick-faced wall in the royal palace at
Susa (Iran). Their principal weapon was the bow, which they
used with deadly effect.
Hippias, the former tyrant of
Athens, accompanied the invaders. It was hoped that his presence
might inspire a coup by the conservative aristocrats of Athens
and bring about a bloodless surrender.
The rest of Greece was cowed into neutrality.
Even the Spartans, the foremost military power in Greece, discovered
a number of pressing religious rituals which would keep them
occupied for the duration of the crisis. Only
Plataea, a tiny dependency of Athens,
sent reinforcements to the Athenian force which mustered before
the plain of Marathon, in an area called Vrana between the hills
and the sea.
The Athenians had about 9,200 men. They were
mostly hoplites, a term which comes from the
hoplon, the large circular
shield which they carried. Each shield also offered support
to the soldier on the shield bearer's left, allowing this man
to use his protected right arm to stab at the enemy with his
principal weapon – the long spear. The Persian infantry preferred
the bow, and were fearsomely adept with it. They fired from
behind large wicker shields which protected them from enemy
bow fire, but were of doubtful value against attacking infantry.
Miltiades Helmet as an offer to Zeus for the Victory.
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Miltiades, the Athenian leader, knew
his enemy, for he had once served in the Persian army. Now
he had to convince a board of ten fellow generals that his
plan of attack would succeed. Each general commanded for
one day in turn and, though they ceded that command to Miltiades,
he still waited until his allotted day before ordering the
attack. This delay was probably for military rather than
political reasons. To neutralize the superior Persian cavalry
the Athenians might have needed to bring up
abatis, spiky wooden defenses,
to guard their flanks. Or they might have waited for the
Persian cavalry to consume their available supplies and
be forced to go foraging. Or Datis,
the Persian commander, might have broken the deadlock by
ordering a march on Athens.
The Athenians deployed most of their
strength on the wings, perhaps to buffer a cavalry thrust,
or so that they could extend their line to counter a Persian
envelopment. This left the centre dangerously weak, especially
as the toughest of the Persian troops were deployed against
To minimize their exposure to enemy bow
fire, the Athenians did something unprecedented for a hoplite
army:They charged down the slight downhill slope at a run.
The startled Persians misjudged the speed of the Athenian
advance, and many of their arrows sped over the hoplites'
heads and landed harmlessly behind them.
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Most of the Greek soldiers at Marathon were hoplites, their
large circular shields offering protection and support to soldiers
on their left.
Though caught off balance, the Persians were
tough and resilient fighters. They broke the Athenian centre
and drove through towards Athens. But the hoplite force destroyed
the wings, and rolled them up in disorder before turning on
the Persian regulars who had broken their centre. The fight
boiled through the Persian camp as the Persians struggled to
regain their ships, with those who failed being driven into
the marshes behind the camp.
The Athenians captured only six ships –perhaps
because the Persian cavalry belatedly reappeared. Nevertheless,
it was a stunning victory. Over 6,000 Persians lay dead for
the loss of 192 on the Athenian side.
But there was no time for self-congratulation. The Persian
fleet then started heading down the coast to where Athens lay
undefended. In the subsequent race between the army on land
and the army at sea the Athenians were again victorious. On
seeing the Athenian army mustered to oppose their landing, the
Persians hesitated briefly, then sailed away.
Without a Greek victory at Marathon, Athens might never have
produced Sophocles, Herodotus, Socrates, Plato or Aristotle.
The word might never have known Euclid, Pericles or Demosthenes
– in short, the cultural heritage of Western civilization would
have been profoundly altered.
Nor would a young runner called Phaedippides have brought
news of the victory to Athens. Phaedippides had earlier gone
to Sparta asking for help, and now his heart gave way under
the strain of his exertions. But a run of 41 km (26 miles) is
still named after the battle from which he came – a marathon.
10,000 men, of which 7,200 were Athenian
Commanded by Miltiades and Callimachus 192
Commanded by Datis
6,400 dead (according to the Greeks)
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