Summer 490 BCE

A 1901 illustration in the American Life magazine of the Battle of Marathon in the summer of 490 BCE. The Athenians on the left ran across the Plain of Marathon in the face of a hail of Persian arrows to win a stunning victory over the army sent by the Persian emperor, Darius I (the Great).

The Battle of Marathon is best remembered today for the 42-kilometre (26-mile) race named after it. Following the battle, the Athenian messenger Thersippos (or Phidippides – there remains some uncertainty) ran from the plain of Marathon all the way to Athens where he shouted out the news of the Athenian victory and fell down dead. This story, like many accounts of Marathon, is probably a fiction. But running did feature in the battle itself, and may well be the explanation for the Greek victory that Thersippos died for.

There might never have been a battle at Marathon had it not been for the persuasive skills of the Athenian general, Miltiades. In the summer of 490 BCE the Greek city was faced with a difficult choice. After taking part in a raid in Anatolia against the vast Persian Empire, ruled by the emperor Darius I, the Athenians knew that they faced the threat of retaliation from an army that held the whole of the Middle East in thrall. Darius is generally thought to have been a benign autocrat towards those peoples who accepted Persian suzerainty; to those who crossed him, however, he was capable of a studied cruelty. In 490, he ordered Datis, a Mede in his service, to lead an expedition to capture the islands of the Aegean and enslave the Athenians. He set off in an estimated 300 boats. The number of men and horses with him grew much larger in the telling. Modern estimates suggest around 12,000 soldiers and perhaps 1,000 horses, more than enough, it was assumed, to complete the task. The Athenians had no cavalry and lacked the large body of trained and toughened archers and horsemen Datis brought with him.

Datis took a winding route from Rhodes, past the island of Naxos (which he sacked) and on to the city of Eretria, which was also slated for destruction and enslavement. After a six-day siege, traitors let in the Persians, who burned and looted the town and put 780 in chains on a temporary prison island. Athens faced a victorious and potentially unstoppable force. The Athenian assembly debated their prospects. Miltiades, who had already clashed with the Persians elsewhere, was in favour of fighting, and his arguments won the day. Athens was the largest Greek city and could raise perhaps 10,000 hoplites (the heavily armed infantry) and 8,000 lightly armed men, but no horsemen. The Greek commander was Kallimachos, but Miltiades seems to have been the inspiration behind the Greeks’ subsequent strategy.

Datis arrived with his boats off the coast of the plain of Marathon. He probably chose the site because it afforded ample ground for his cavalry to deploy. He camped and waited. The Athenians, joined by perhaps 1,000 allies from Plataea, marched to the southern side of the plain. Here the ten Athenian generals (one for each of Athens’s tribes) argued again about whether to fight or not. Miltiades prevailed with the casting vote of Kallimachos (not for nothing was Athens the home of democracy). The fighting began when it was the turn of Miltiades to be the general in charge.

Recent accounts suggest that it was Miltiades who worked out how Athens might defeat the larger, more experienced and well-armed enemy in front of it. He probably observed that the cavalry was camped some distance from the infantry, possibly divided from them by a small lake, and that it would take time for all the horses to deploy onto the plain. Some historians have suggested that the cavalry had already gone back on board ship, with a view to sailing round to Athens by sea, but that would seem a strange decision, given the importance of the battle, and horses are evident on a sarcophagus in the northern Italian city of Brescia, on which the Greek painting of the battle, made just thirty years after the event, was reproduced in marble. The Athenians’ plan was to urge the Greek army to run across the plain (approximately a mile) and engage the Persian archers and infantry before the cavalry could intervene. This was a risky plan, and it forced the Greeks to shed some of their protective armour to run as lightly burdened as possible. It also meant that the whole Athenian army would be exposed during its ten-minute run across the plain to the withering fire of the Persian archers. This required a special courage.

Sacrifices to the gods carried out beforehand suggested good omens, which may have shored up any doubts among the Greek soldiers. Miltiades led them onto the plain, his line thicker on the two wings, deliberately thinner in the centre, until they were about a mile (eight stadia in the ancient Greek units of length) from the Persian lines. A trumpet sounded, and Miltiades gave the order, ‘Rush at them!’

A Corinthian bronze helmet from the period of Marathon. Greek soldiers were otherwise lightly armoured, a fact that allowed them to run the gauntlet at Marathon.

Those ten minutes of running, not too fast to exhaust them but fast enough to disconcert the enemy, were a formidable trial for the Greek army. The Persian archers shot cascades of arrows, but they were less effective at a running target, and the Greek line held. Before the Persian horses could join the action, the Athenians crashed into the Persian line, warmed up, like modern sportsmen, from the run. There is no record of how long the battle with sword and spear lasted, but when the Persians broke through the weaker centre, the two wings, where the Greeks had succeeded, wheeled round to envelop the advancing enemy from the side and rear. The Persians probably panicked, and tried to fight their way back to their boats. At this point the Athenians exploited their advantage ruthlessly, killing the Persians with their better thrusting spears or drowning them at the edge of the sea. Only seven ships were captured as Datis made his getaway, but the Persian dead numbered 6,400. It is said that the Athenians lost 192, including Kallimachos, who, legend has it, died holding onto a Persian ship with his teeth after losing both his arms. The enemy corpses were stripped of gold and left to rot.

Marathon has been hailed many times as the battle that saved Western civilization from oriental despotism. More than a single battle was needed to achieve that, but it confirmed the special status of Athens and paved the way for the later victories that really did end Persian ambitions in Attica. It has also left a permanent imprint on the modern view of ancient Greece. The brave and disciplined run across the plain at the enemy was the key to victory; it is echoed in the awful run through no-man’s land forced on the infantry of the First World War, which brought a bitter stalemate rather than a rich and legendary victory.