Battle of Marathon
At the beginning of the fifth century BCE the Persian Empire exercised hegemony over the western coast of Asia Minor, then known as Ionia. In 499 BCE, however, the rich Greek commercial cities of Ionia revolted against King Darius I of Persia, who had imposed heavy taxes on them, restricted their trade with the Black Sea, and refused to allow changes toward more democratic government.
The leader of this revolt, Aristagoras, traveled to Greece to solicit aid. Sparta refused, but Athens responded with 20 ships, and Eretria (a city on the island of Euboea) responded with 5 ships. As Herodotus notes, when this small Greek naval force sailed, it marked the beginning of trouble for mainland Greece. Although the rebels took and burned Sardis, the principal Persian city of western Anatolia, Greek disunity and the desertion of the Samians and Lesbians led to the defeat of the Greek fleet in a battle off the island of Lade in 494. Darius then set out to punish the mainland Greeks. Although it is true that Athenian aid to the Ionian Greeks prompted his decision, Darius had long sought to control Greece.
In 492 Darius dispatched an army under his son-in-law Mardonius across the Dardanelles into Thrace, bringing about the subjugation of that area. The Persians were in position to invade Greece from the north, but a great storm wrecked much of the Persian fleet as it rounded the Mount Athos peninsula, forcing the Persian army to return home.
In 491 Darius demanded of the mainland Greeks earth and water as symbols of submission. The Greek city-states must have been in a panic at the news that Persia was again preparing to invade. Persia was the greatest empire in terms of area that the world had yet known, and its army appeared invincible. Strong pro-Persian factions existed in virtually all the city-states, including Athens. Even the oracle at Delphi was pro-Persian. How could the Greeks, so divided and so relatively weak, expect to triumph? Nonetheless, both Athens and Sparta refused to submit.
In 490 Darius mounted his second invasion, this time commanded by his nephew Artaphernes and a Medean noble, Datia. The invasion fleet of some 200 triremes and 400 transports, carrying perhaps 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, assembled at Tarsus on the Cilician coast and then proceeded westward to Ionia and through the Cyclades. The Persians took and sacked Naxos, which had resisted capture 10 years before. The fleet proceeded from island to island across the Aegean, picking up conscripts and taking children as hostages. By the time the Persians landed on Euboea they had perhaps 80,000 men, including rowers and conscripts.
Euboea refused to surrender, and the Persians destroyed the countryside and laid siege to the city. The city held out for a week until the defenders were betrayed. In reprisal for Sardis, the Persian burned all the city’s temples. The fleet then sailed west from Eritrea and made landfall on the Greek mainland in the Bay of Marathon, some 26 miles northeast of Athens. The Persians selected this site because Hippias, who had been deposed as the tyrant of Athens in 510 and fled to Persia, told the Persians that the plain there would allow them to employ their cavalry, in which they were overwhelmingly superior to the Greeks. Hippias was with the Persian force and, following their anticipated victory, was to work with the proPersian faction in Athens and be installed as Persian governor of all Greece.
The Persians hoped that by landing at Marathon they might draw the Athenian army away from the city’s great protective walls and destroy it or else hold the smaller Athenian force there while sending part of their army south to Athens by ship. Athens sent an appeal to Sparta, probably carried by the famed runner Pheidippides; reportedly he once covered 140 miles in two days. The Spartan leaders agreed to assist, but they refused to suspend a religious festival that would delay their army’s march north until the next full moon, on the night of August 11–12. It was then August 5.
News of the fall of Eretria brought fierce debate in Athens. Some wanted to simply prepare for a siege, but others, including Miltiades, urged that the army be sent out to fight. Miltiades hailed from Ionia, and in 512 he had fought with Darius against the Scythians in the Danube region. When the Scythians defeated the Persians in a battle and Darius withdrew his Persians toward a key bridge that Miltiades and the Greeks were holding, Miltiades reportedly suggested that the Greeks destroy the bridge and cut off the Persians, allowing the Scythians to destroy them. He was overruled by the other Ionian generals. Darius found out about Miltiades’ treachery and vowed revenge, whereupon Miltiades fled to Athens and became active in politics there.
Reportedly Miltiades pointed out that allowing the Persians to besiege would cut Athens off from Spartan aid (the Long Walls were not yet built) and increase the chances of treachery. Miltiades won the day. He argued that the city’s only hope once the Persians landed at Marathon with their cavalry was to destroy them on the beachhead. In the city, slaves were freed; they and other freedmen and citizens traversed the mountains to Marathon. The Athenian force numbered some 10,000 hoplites (infantrymen). The little city-state of Plataea sent unexpected aid of as many as 1,000 hoplites. Callimachus commanded as war archon (polemarchos). Each of the 10 tribes of Athens had its own general, and Miltiades was only one of these.
The Athenians positioned themselves on high ground west of the plain in position to block a Persian advance overland toward Athens, and they set about felling trees to inhibit the Persian cavalry. Not only did the Persians vastly outnumber the Greeks, but they had cavalry and archers, whereas the Greeks had none. For several days (August 7–11) the two armies simply sat in place, some two miles apart. Both sides were waiting: the Athenians were waiting for the Spartans to arrive, and the Persians were waiting for conspirators in touch with Hippias to seize power in Athens.
The Persians must have known that Spartan reinforcements would soon arrive, and with no word that pro-Persian conspirators in Athens had been successful, they evidently decided to send the bulk of their fleet to Phaleron Bay on the night of August 11–12 along with a substantial land force, including the cavalry. They left behind a land force of perhaps 15,000 men.
If the Persians had hoped to win by treachery, it was the Greeks who actually did so. Ionian deserters got word to the Greeks before dawn on August 12, including information that the cavalry had departed. Miltiades realized that the one hope the Athenians had was to attack swiftly, defeat the Persian land force, and then march to the relief of Athens before the other Persian force could disembark, perhaps in late afternoon.
Miltiades formed the Greek line about a mile long so that its flanks rested on two small streams flowing to the sea. Beyond these were marshes north and south. The disposition of the Greek force thinned the center of the line, which contained the best troops, to perhaps only three or four men, but Miltiades kept the flanks, which had his least reliable troops, at full phalanx depth. The Greeks thus had a weak center with powerful striking forces on either side. The Greeks were better armed, with long spears against javelins and short swords against daggers or scimitars. They were also better protected with bronze body armor, and they were more highly motivated, fighting for their homeland.
Battle was joined that morning. The Greeks advanced slowly toward the Persian camp and the beach until they were 150–200 yards away and within bow range of the Persian archers, who were in front. They charged the center of the Persian line to minimize the time that they would be under arrow attack. The Greeks easily broke through the ranks of lightly armed Persian bowmen, who only had time to get off a few arrows each before seeking safety behind the main Persian formation. The Persian infantry easily threw back the Greek center, but Greek discipline held as the line became concave. The heavy Greek flanks folded on the lightly armed Persian flanks, compressing the Persians in a double envelopment. Authorities differ as to whether this was planned or simply accidental.
The Persian flanks and center now gave way as the troops fled for the beach and their transports, being cut down by the Greeks as they tried to get away. Some sort of Persian rear guard was organized to cover their embarkation, and most of the force escaped. It was then about 9:00 a.m. The Greek historian Herodotus claims that the Greeks only lost 192 men killed, while 6,400 Persians fell. The Greeks also destroyed seven Persian ships.
Miltiades sent word of the Greek victory to Athens by a runner, reportedly Pheidippedes, on the first Marathon run. The Athenians could not pause to celebrate, for the two Persian naval forces were now making for Phaleron Bay. Leaving a detachment to guard the Persian prisoners and booty, the remainder of the Athenian army marched to Athens. They arrived in late afternoon just as the Persian fleet was approaching shore for a landing. Realizing they were too late, the Persians withdrew. The Spartans did not arrive at Athens until several days later. They praised the victors and returned home.
The Greeks had won one of the important battles of history. The Battle of Marathon allowed the continuation of Greek independence. The victory was not conclusive, but it did hold the Persians at bay for a decade. Marathon, at least, allowed the Greeks to imagine that they might triumph a second time.
Burn, A. R. Persia and the Greeks: The Defence of the West, c. 546–478 BC. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984.
Creasy, Edward S. The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo. New York: Heritage, 1969.
Green, Peter. The Greco-Persian Wars. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. Edited by Manuel Komroff. Translated by George Rawlinson. New York: Tudor Publishing, 1956.