Date: August 490 B.C. Location: 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 9.27
Marathon 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
Accordingly, after crushing the rebellion in Asia Minor, in 490 B.C a Persian invasion force landed atMarathon, 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.
Persian infantrymen 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, 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 it.
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 hoplite infantrymen
Commanded by Miltiades and Callimachus 192 dead
Commanded by Datis 6,400 dead (according to the Greeks)
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