BATTLE OF MARATHON
This is an extract from the Wikipedia
The Battle of Marathon took place in 490
during the first Persian invasion of Greece. It was fought between the citizens
of Athens, aided by Plataea, and a Persian force commanded by Datis and
Artaphernes. The battle was the culmination of
the first attempt by Persia, under King Darius I, to subjugate
Greece. The Greek army decisively defeated the more numerous Persians, marking
a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars. The first Persian invasion was a
response to Athenian involvement in the Ionian Revolt, when Athens and Eretria
sent a force to support the cities of Ionia in their attempt to overthrow
Persian rule. The Athenians and Eretrians had succeeded in capturing and
burning Sardis, but they were then forced to retreat with heavy losses. In
response to this raid, Darius swore to burn down Athens and Eretria.
According to Herodotus, Darius had his bow brought to him and then shot an
arrow "upwards towards heaven", saying as he did so: "Zeus, that
it may be granted me to take vengeance upon the Athenians!" Herodotus
further writes that Darius charged one of his servants to say "Master,
remember the Athenians" three times before dinner each day.
At the time of the battle, Sparta and Athens were the two largest city-states
in Greece. Once the Ionian revolt was finally crushed by the Persian victory at
the Battle of Lade in 494, Darius began plans
to subjugate Greece. In 490, he sent a naval task force under Datis and
Artaphernes across the Aegean, to subjugate the Cyclades, and then to make
punitive attacks on Athens and Eretria. Reaching Euboea in mid-summer after a
successful campaign in the Aegean, the Persians proceeded to besiege and
The Persian force then sailed for Attica, landing in the bay near the town of
Marathon. The Athenians, joined by a small force from Plataea, marched to
Marathon, and succeeded in blocking the two exits from the plain of Marathon.
The Athenians also sent a message to the Spartans asking for support. When the
messenger arrived in Sparta, the Spartans were involved in a religious festival
and gave this as a reason for not coming to help the Athenians. The Athenians
and their allies chose a location for the battle, with marshes and mountainous
terrain, that prevented the Persian cavalry from joining the Persian infantry.
Miltiades, the Athenian general, ordered a general attack against the Persian
forces, composed primarily of missile troops. He reinforced his flanks, luring
the Persians' best fighters into his centre. The inward wheeling flanks
enveloped the Persians, routing them. The Persian army broke in panic towards
their ships, and large numbers were slaughtered. The defeat at Marathon marked
the end of the first Persian invasion of Greece, and the Persian force
retreated to Asia. Darius then began raising a huge new army with which he
meant to completely subjugate Greece; however, in 486, his Egyptian subjects
revolted, indefinitely postponing any Greek expedition. After Darius died, his
son Xerxes I restarted the preparations for a second invasion of Greece, which
finally began in 480.
The Battle of Marathon was a watershed in the Greco-Persian wars, showing the
Greeks that the Persians could be beaten; the eventual Greek triumph in these
wars can be seen to have begun at Marathon. The battle also showed the Greeks
that they were able to win battles without the Spartans, as they had heavily
relied on Sparta previously. This victory was largely due to the Athenians, and
Marathon raised Greek esteem of them. The following two hundred years saw the
rise of the Classical Greek civilization, which has been enduringly influential
in western society and so the Battle of Marathon is often seen as a pivotal
moment in Mediterranean and European history.
Athens + Plataea versus Persian Empire
Commanders and leaders:
Athens - Miltiades, Callimachus, Aristides the Just, Xanthippus,
Themistocles, Stesilaos, Arimnestos, Cynaegirus,
Persians - Datis, Artaphernes, Hippias
Greeks - 9,00010,000 Athenians, 1,000 Plataeans
Persians - 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry (modern estimates] (the latter was
not engaged) 100,000+ armed oarsmen and sailors (arranged as reserve troops
they saw little action, mostly defending the ships) 600 triremes 50+
horse-carriers 200+ supply ships
Casualties and losses:
Greeks - 192 Athenians 11 Plataeans (Herodotus)
Persians - 6,400 dead 7 ships destroyed (Herodotus) 4,0005,000 dead
Main articles: Greco-Persian Wars, Ionian Revolt, and First Persian invasion of
The first Persian invasion of Greece had its immediate roots in the Ionian
Revolt, the earliest phase of the Greco-Persian Wars. However, it was also the
result of the longer-term interaction between the Greeks and Persians. In 500
the Persian Empire was still relatively young and highly expansionistic, but
prone to revolts amongst its subject peoples. Moreover, the Persian King Darius
was a usurper, and had spent considerable time extinguishing revolts against
his rule. Even before the Ionian Revolt, Darius had begun to expand the empire
into Europe, subjugating Thrace, and forcing Macedon to become a vassal of
Persia. Attempts at further expansion into the politically fractious world of
ancient Greece may have been inevitable. However, the Ionian Revolt had
directly threatened the integrity of the Persian empire, and the states of
mainland Greece remained a potential menace to its future stability.
Darius thus resolved to subjugate and pacify Greece and the Aegean, and to
punish those involved in the Ionian Revolt. The
Ionian Revolt had
begun with an unsuccessful expedition against Naxos, a joint venture between
the Persian satrap Artaphernes and the Milesian tyrant Aristagoras. In the
aftermath, Artaphernes decided to remove Aristagoras from power, but before he
could do so, Aristagoras abdicated, and declared Miletus a democracy. The other
Ionian cities followed suit, ejecting their Persian-appointed tyrants, and
declaring themselves democracies. Aristagoras then appealed to the states of
mainland Greece for support, but only Athens and Eretria offered to send
troops. The involvement of Athens in the Ionian Revolt arose from a complex set
of circumstances, beginning with the establishment of the Athenian Democracy in
the late 6th century.
In 510, with the aid of Cleomenes I, King of Sparta, the Athenian people had
expelled Hippias, the tyrant ruler of Athens. With Hippias's father
Peisistratus, the family had ruled for 36 out of the previous 50 years and
fully intended to continue Hippias's rule. Hippias fled to Sardis to the court
of the Persian satrap, Artaphernes and promised control of Athens to the
Persians if they were to help restore him. In the meantime, Cleomenes helped
install a pro-Spartan tyranny under Isagoras in Athens, in opposition to
Cleisthenes, the leader of the traditionally powerful Alcmaeonidae family, who
considered themselves the natural heirs to the rule of Athens. Cleisthenes,
however, found himself being politically defeated by a coalition led by
Isagoras and decided to change the rules of the game by appealing to the demos
(the people), in effect making them a new faction in the political arena. This
tactic succeeded, but the Spartan King, Cleomenes I, returned at the request of
Isagoras and so Cleisthenes, the Alcmaeonids and other prominent Athenian
families were exiled from Athens.
When Isagoras attempted to create a narrow oligarchic government, the Athenian
people, in a spontaneous and unprecedented move, expelled Cleomenes and
Isagoras. Cleisthenes was thus restored to Athens in 507, and at breakneck
speed began to reform the state with the aim of securing his position. The
result was not actually a democracy or a real civic state, but he enabled the
development of a fully democratic government, which would emerge in the next
generation as the demos realized its power. The new-found freedom and
self-governance of the Athenians meant that they were thereafter exceptionally
hostile to the return of the tyranny of Hippias, or any form of outside
subjugation, by Sparta, Persia, or anyone else.
Cleomenes was not pleased with events, and marched on Athens with the Spartan
army. Cleomenes's attempts to restore Isagoras to Athens ended in a debacle,
but fearing the worst, the Athenians had by this point already sent an embassy
to Artaphernes in Sardis, to request aid from the Persian empire. Artaphernes
requested that the Athenians give him an 'earth and water', a traditional token
of submission, to which the Athenian ambassadors acquiesced. They were,
however, severely censured for this when they returned to Athens. At some later
point Cleomenes instigated a plot to restore Hippias to the rule of Athens.
This failed and Hippias again fled to Sardis and tried to persuade the Persians
to subjugate Athens. The Athenians dispatched ambassadors to Artaphernes to
dissuade him from taking action, but Artaphernes merely instructed the
Athenians to take Hippias back as tyrant. The Athenians indignantly declined,
and instead resolved to open war with Persia. Having thus become the enemy of
Persia, Athens was already in a position to support the Ionian cities when they
began their revolt. The fact that the Ionian democracies were inspired by the
example the Athenians had set no doubt further persuaded the Athenians to
support the Ionian Revolt, especially since the cities of Ionia were originally
The Athenians and Eretrians sent a task force of 25 triremes to Asia Minor to
aid the revolt. Whilst there, the Greek army surprised and outmaneuvered
Artaphernes, marching to Sardis and burning the lower city. This was, however,
as much as the Greeks achieved, and they were then repelled and pursued back to
the coast by Persian horsemen, losing many men in the process. Despite the fact
that their actions were ultimately fruitless, the Eretrians and in particular
the Athenians had earned Darius's lasting enmity, and he vowed to punish both
The Persian naval victory at the Battle of Lade
in 494 all but ended the Ionian Revolt, and by 493, the last hold-outs were
vanquished by the Persian fleet. The revolt was used as an opportunity by
Darius to extend the empire's border to the islands of the eastern Aegean and
the Propontis, which had not been part of the Persian dominions before. The
pacification of Ionia allowed the Persians to begin planning their next moves;
to extinguish the threat to the empire from Greece and to punish Athens and
Eretria. In 492, after the Ionian Revolt had finally been crushed, Darius
dispatched an expedition to Greece under the command of his son-in-law,
re-subjugated Thrace and made Macedonia a fully subordinate part of the
Persians; they had been vassals of the Persians since the late 6th century, but
retained their general autonomy. Not long after however, his fleet became
wrecked by a violent storm, which brought a premature end to the campaign.
However, in 490, following the successes of the previous campaign, Darius
decided to send a maritime expedition led by Artaphernes, (son of the satrap to
whom Hippias had fled) and Datis, a Median admiral. Mardonius had been injured
in the prior campaign and had fallen out of favor. The expedition was intended
to bring the Cyclades into the Persian empire, to punish Naxos (which had
resisted a Persian assault in 499 and then to head to Greece to force Eretria
and Athens to submit to Darius or be destroyed. After island-hopping across the
Aegean, including successfully attacking Naxos, the Persian task force arrived
off Euboea in mid summer. The Persians then proceeded to besiege, capture and
burn Eretria. They then headed south down the coast of Attica, en route to
complete the final objective of the campaignpunish Athens.
Initial disposition of forces at Marathon:
The Persians sailed down the coast of Attica, and landed at the bay of
Marathon, 25 miles (40 km) from Athens, on the advice of the exiled Athenian
tyrant Hippias (who had accompanied the expedition). Under the guidance of
Miltiades, the Athenian general with the greatest experience of fighting the
Persians, the Athenian army marched quickly to block the two exits from the
plain of Marathon, and prevent the Persians moving inland.
At the same time, Athens's greatest runner, Pheidippides (or Philippides in
some accounts) had been sent to Sparta to request that the Spartan army march
to the aid of Athens. Pheidippides arrived during the festival of Carneia, a
sacrosanct period of peace, and was informed that the Spartan army could not
march to war until the full moon rose; Athens could not expect reinforcement
for at least ten days. The Athenians would have to hold out at Marathon for the
time being, although they were reinforced by the full muster of 1,000 hoplites
from the small city of Plataea, a gesture which did much to steady the nerves
of the Athenians and won unending Athenian gratitude to Plataea. For
approximately five days the armies therefore confronted each other across the
plain of Marathon in stalemate. The flanks of the Athenian camp were protected
either by a grove of trees, or an abbatis of stakes (depending on the exact
reading). Since every day brought the arrival of the Spartans closer, the delay
worked in favor of the Athenians.
There were ten Athenian strategoi (generals) at Marathon, elected by each of
the ten tribes that the Athenians were divided into; Miltiades was one of
these. In addition, in overall charge, was the War-Archon (polemarch),
Callimachus, who had
been elected by the whole citizen body. Herodotus suggests that command rotated
between the strategoi, each taking in turn a day to command the army. He
further suggests that each strategos, on his day in command, instead deferred
to Miltiades. In Herodotus's account, Miltiades is keen to attack the Persians
(despite knowing that the Spartans are coming to aid the Athenians), but
strangely, chooses to wait until his actual day of command to attack. This
passage is undoubtedly problematic; the Athenians had little to gain by
attacking before the Spartans arrived, and there is no real evidence of this
rotating generalship. There does, however, seem to have been a delay between
the Athenian arrival at Marathon and the battle; Herodotus, who evidently
believed that Miltiades was eager to attack, may have made a mistake while
seeking to explain this delay.
As is discussed below, the reason for the delay was probably simply that
neither the Athenians nor the Persians were willing to risk battle initially.
This then raises the question of why the battle occurred when it did. Herodotus
explicitly tells us that the Greeks attacked the Persians (and the other
sources confirm this), but it is not clear why they did this before the arrival
of the Spartans. There are two main theories to explain this. The first theory
is that the Persian cavalry left Marathon for an unspecified reason, and that
the Greeks moved to take advantage of this by attacking. This theory is based
on the absence of any mention of cavalry in Herodotus' account of the battle,
and an entry in the Suda dictionary. The entry ("without cavalry") is
explained thus: The cavalry left. When Datis surrendered and was ready for
retreat, the Ionians climbed the trees and gave the Athenians the signal that
the cavalry had left. And when Miltiades realized that, he attacked and thus
won. From there comes the above-mentioned quote, which is used when someone
breaks ranks before battle.
There are many variations of this theory, but perhaps the most prevalent is
that the cavalry were completing the time-consuming process of re-embarking on
the ships, and were to be sent by sea to attack (undefended) Athens in the
rear, whilst the rest of the Persians pinned down the Athenian army at
Marathon. This theory therefore utilises Herodotus' suggestion that after
Marathon, the Persian army began to re-embark, intending to sail around Cape
Sounion to attack Athens directly. Thus, this re-embarcation would have
occurred before the battle (and indeed have triggered the battle). The second
theory is simply that the battle occurred because the Persians finally moved to
attack the Athenians. Although this theory has the Persians moving to the
strategic offensive, this can be reconciled with the traditional account of the
Athenians attacking the Persians by assuming that, seeing the Persians
advancing, the Athenians took the tactical offensive, and attacked them.
Obviously, it cannot be firmly established which theory (if either) is correct.
However, both theories imply that there was some kind of Persian activity which
occurred on or about the fifth day which ultimately triggered the battle. It is
also possible that both theories are correct: when the Persians sent the
cavalry by ship to attack Athens, they simultaneously sent their infantry to
attack at Marathon, triggering the Greek counterattack.
Date of the battle:
Herodotus mentions for several events a date in the lunisolar calendar, of
which each Greek city-state used a variant. Astronomical computation allows us
to derive an absolute date in the proleptic Julian calendar which is much used
by historians as the chronological frame. Philipp August Böckh in 1855
concluded that the battle took place on September 12, 490 in the Julian
calendar, and this is the conventionally accepted date. However, this depends
on when exactly the Spartans held their festival and it is possible that the
Spartan calendar was one month ahead of that of Athens. In that case the battle
took place on August 12, 490.
Herodotus does not give a figure for the size of the Athenian army. However,
Cornelius Nepos, Pausanias and Plutarch all give the figure of 9,000 Athenians
and 1,000 Plataeans; while Justin suggests that there were 10,000 Athenians and
1,000 Plataeans. These numbers are highly comparable to the number of troops
Herodotus says that the Athenians and Plataeans sent to the Battle of Plataea
11 years later. Pausanias noticed on the monument to the battle the names of
former slaves who were freed in exchange for military services. Modern
historians generally accept these numbers as reasonable. The areas ruled by
Athens (Attica) had a population of 315,000 at this time including slaves,
which implies the full Athenian army at the times of both Marathon and Plataea
numbered about 3% of the population.
For a full discussion of the size of the Persian invasion force, see First
Persian invasion of Greece.
The ethnicities of the soldiers of the army of Darius I are illustrated on the
tomb of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rostam, with a mention of each ethnicity in
Identical depictions were made on the tombs of other Achaemenid emperors, the
best preserved frieze being that of Xerxes I. According to Herodotus, the fleet
sent by Darius consisted of 600 triremes. Herodotus does not estimate the size
of the Persian army, only saying that they were a "large infantry that was
well packed". Among ancient sources, the poet Simonides, another
near-contemporary, says the campaign force numbered 200,000; while a later
writer, the Roman Cornelius Nepos estimates 200,000 infantry and 10,000
cavalry, of which only 100,000 fought in the battle, while the rest were loaded
into the fleet that was rounding Cape Sounion; Plutarch and Pausanias both
independently give 300,000, as does the Suda dictionary. Plato and Lysias give
500,000; and Justinus 600,000.
Modern historians have proposed wide-ranging numbers for the infantry, from
20,000100,000 with a consensus of perhaps 25,000; estimates for the
cavalry are in the range of 1,000. The fleet included various contingents from
different parts of the Achaemenid Empire, particularly Ionians and Aeolians,
although they are not mentioned as participating directly to the battle and may
have remained on the ships: Datis sailed with his army against Eretria first,
taking with him Ionians and Aeolians. ?Herodotus 6.98.
Regarding the ethnicities involved in the battle, Herodotus specifically
mentions the presence of the Persians and the Sakae at the center of the
Achaemenid line: They fought a long time at Marathon. In the center of the line
the foreigners prevailed, where the Persians and Sacae were arrayed. The
foreigners prevailed there and broke through in pursuit inland, but on each
wing the Athenians and Plataeans prevailed. In victory they let the routed
foreigners flee, and brought the wings together to fight those who had broken
through the center. The Athenians prevailed, then followed the fleeing Persians
and struck them down. When they reached the sea they demanded fire and laid
hold of the Persian ships. ?Herodotus VI.113.
Strategic and tactical considerations:
From a strategic point of view, the Athenians had some disadvantages at
Marathon. In order to face the Persians in battle, the Athenians had to summon
all available hoplites; and even then they were still probably outnumbered at
least 2 to 1. Furthermore, raising such a large army had denuded Athens of
defenders, and thus any secondary attack in the Athenian rear would cut the
army off from the city; and any direct attack on the city could not be defended
against. Still further, defeat at Marathon would mean the complete defeat of
Athens, since no other Athenian army existed. The Athenian strategy was
therefore to keep the Persian army pinned down at Marathon, blocking both exits
from the plain, and thus preventing themselves from being outmaneuvered.
However, these disadvantages were balanced by some advantages. The Athenians
initially had no need to seek battle, since they had managed to confine the
Persians to the plain of Marathon. Furthermore, time worked in their favour, as
every day brought the arrival of the Spartans closer.
Having everything to lose by attacking, and much to gain by waiting, the
Athenians remained on the defensive in the run up to the battle. Tactically,
hoplites were vulnerable to attacks by cavalry, and since the Persians had
substantial numbers of cavalry, this made any offensive maneuver by the
Athenians even more of a risk, and thus reinforced the defensive strategy of
The Persian strategy, on the other hand, was probably principally determined by
tactical considerations. The Persian infantry was evidently lightly armoured,
and no match for hoplites in a head-on confrontation (as would be demonstrated
at the later battles of Thermopylae and Plataea.) Since the Athenians seem to
have taken up a strong defensive position at Marathon, the Persian hesitance
was probably a reluctance to attack the Athenians head-on. The camp of the
Athenians was located on a spur of mount Agrieliki next to the plain of
Marathon; remains of its fortifications are still visible. Whatever event
eventually triggered the battle, it obviously altered the strategic or tactical
balance sufficiently to induce the Athenians to attack the Persians. If the
first theory is correct (see above), then the absence of cavalry removed the
main Athenian tactical disadvantage, and the threat of being outflanked made it
imperative to attack. Conversely, if the second theory is correct, then the
Athenians were merely reacting to the Persians attacking them. Since the
Persian force obviously contained a high proportion of missile troops, a static
defensive position would have made little sense for the Athenians; the strength
of the hoplite was in the melee, and the sooner that could be brought about,
the better, from the Athenian point of view. If the second theory is correct,
this raises the further question of why the Persians, having hesitated for
several days, then attacked. There may have been several strategic reasons for
this; perhaps they were aware (or suspected) that the Athenians were expecting
reinforcements. Alternatively, they may have felt the need to force some kind
of victorythey could hardly remain at Marathon indefinitely.
The distance between the two armies at the point of battle had narrowed to
"a distance not less than 8 stadia" or about 1,500 meters. Miltiades
ordered the two tribes forming the center of the Greek formation, the Leontis
tribe led by Themistocles and the Antiochis tribe led by Aristides, to be
arranged in the depth of four ranks while the rest of the tribes at their
flanks were in ranks of eight. Some modern commentators have suggested this was
a deliberate ploy to encourage a double envelopment of the Persian centre.
However, this suggests a level of training that the Greeks are thought not to
have possessed. There is little evidence for any such tactical thinking in
Greek battles until Leuctra in 371.] It is therefore possible that this
arrangement was made, perhaps at the last moment, so that the Athenian line was
as long as the Persian line, and would not therefore be outflanked.
Map showing the armies' main movements during the battle
When the Athenian line was ready, according to one source, the simple signal to
advance was given by Miltiades: "At them". Herodotus implies the
Athenians ran the whole distance to the Persian lines, a feat under the weight
of hoplite armory generally thought to be physically impossible. More likely,
they marched until they reached the limit of the archers' effectiveness, the
"beaten zone" (roughly 200 meters), and then broke into a run towards
their enemy. Another possibility is that they ran up to the 200 meter-mark in
broken ranks, and then reformed for the march into battle from there. Herodotus
suggests that this was the first time a Greek army ran into battle in this way;
this was probably because it was the first time that a Greek army had faced an
enemy composed primarily of missile troops. All this was evidently much to the
surprise of the Persians; "... in their minds they charged the Athenians
with madness which must be fatal, seeing that they were few and yet were
pressing forwards at a run, having neither cavalry nor archers".
Indeed, based on their previous experience of the Greeks, the Persians might be
excused for this; Herodotus tells us that the Athenians at Marathon were
"first to endure looking at Median dress and men wearing it, for up until
then just hearing the name of the Medes caused the Hellenes to panic".
Passing through the hail of arrows launched by the Persian army, protected for
the most part by their armour, the Greek line finally made contact with the
enemy army. The Athenian wings quickly routed the inferior Persian levies on
the flanks, before turning inwards to surround the Persian centre, which had
been more successful against the thin Greek centre.] The battle ended when the
Persian centre then broke in panic towards their ships, pursued by the Greeks.
Some, unaware of the local terrain, ran towards the swamps where unknown
The Athenians pursued the Persians back to their ships, and managed to capture
seven ships, though the majority were able to launch successfully. Herodotus
recounts the story that Cynaegirus, brother of the playwright Aeschylus, who
was also among the fighters, charged into the sea, grabbed one Persian trireme,
and started pulling it towards shore. A member of the crew saw him, cut off his
hand, and Cynaegirus died. Herodotus records that 6,400 Persian bodies were
counted on the battlefield, and it is unknown how many more perished in the
swamps. He also reported that the Athenians lost 192 men and the Plataeans 11.
Among the dead were the war archon Callimachus and the general Stesilaos.
There are several explanations of the Greek success. Most scholars believe that
the Greeks had better equipment and used superior tactics. According to
Herodotus, the Greeks were better equipped. They did not use bronze upper body
armour at this time, but that of leather or linen. The phalanx formation proved
successful, because the hoplites had a long tradition in hand-to-hand combat,
whereas the Persian soldiers were accustomed to a very different kind of
conflict. At Marathon, the Athenians thinned their centre in order to make
their army equal in length to the Persian army, not as a result of a tactical
planning. It seems that the Persian centre tried to return, realizing that
their wings had broken, and was caught in the flanks by the victorious Greek
Lazenby (1993) believes that the ultimate reason for the Greek success was the
courage the Greeks displayed: Marathon was won because ordinary, amateur
soldiers found the courage to break into a trot when the arrows began to fall,
instead of grinding to a halt, and when surprisingly the enemy wings fled, not
to take the easy way out and follow them, but to stop and somehow come to the
aid of the hard pressured centre.
According to Vic Hurley, the Persian defeat is explained by the "complete
failure ... to field a representative army", calling the battle the
"most convincing" example of the fact that infantry-bowmen cannot
defend any position while stationed in close-quarters and unsupported (i.e. by
fortifications, or failing to support them by cavalry and chariots, as was the
common Persian tactic).
Main articles: Greco-Persian Wars and Second Persian invasion of Greece
In the immediate aftermath of the battle, Herodotus says that the Persian fleet
sailed around Cape Sounion to attack Athens directly. As has been discussed
above, some modern historians place this attempt just before the battle. Either
way, the Athenians evidently realised that their city was still under threat,
and marched as quickly as possible back to Athens. The two tribes which had
been in the centre of the Athenian line stayed to guard the battlefield under
the command of Aristides. The Athenians arrived in time to prevent the Persians
from securing a landing, and seeing that the opportunity was lost, the Persians
turned about and returned to Asia. Connected with this episode, Herodotus
recounts a rumour that this manoeuver by the Persians had been planned in
conjunction with the Alcmaeonids, the prominent Athenian aristocratic family,
and that a "shield-signal" had been given after the battle. Although
many interpretations of this have been offered, it is impossible to tell
whether this was true, and if so, what exactly the signal meant.
On the next day, the Spartan army arrived at Marathon, having covered the 220
kilometers (140 mi) in only three days. The Spartans toured the battlefield at
Marathon, and agreed that the Athenians had won a great victory. The Athenian
and Plataean dead of Marathon were buried on the battlefield in two tumuli. On
the tomb of the Athenians this epigram composed by Simonides was written:
"Fighting at the forefront of the Greeks, the Athenians at Marathon laid
low the army of the gilded Medes."
Meanwhile, Darius began raising a huge new army with which he meant to
completely subjugate Greece; however, in 486, his Egyptian subjects revolted,
indefinitely postponing any Greek expedition. Darius then died while preparing
to march on Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I. Xerxes
crushed the Egyptian revolt, and very quickly restarted the preparations for
the invasion of Greece.
The epic second Persian invasion of Greece finally began in 480, and the
Persians met with initial success at the battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium.
However, defeat at the Battle of Salamis would be the turning point in the
campaign, and the next year the expedition was ended by the decisive Greek
victory at the Battle of Plataea.
The defeat at Marathon barely touched the vast resources of the Persian empire,
yet for the Greeks it was an enormously significant victory. It was the first
time the Greeks had beaten the Persians, proving that the Persians were not
invincible, and that resistance, rather than subjugation, was possible. The
battle was a defining moment for the young Athenian democracy, showing what
might be achieved through unity and self-belief; indeed, the battle effectively
marks the start of a "golden age" for Athens. This was also
applicable to Greece as a whole; "their victory endowed the Greeks with a
faith in their destiny that was to endure for three centuries, during which
western culture was born".
John Stuart Mill's famous opinion was that "the Battle of Marathon, even
as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of
According to Isaac Asimov,"if the Athenians had lost in Marathon, . . .
Greece might have never gone to develop the peak of its civilization, a peak
whose fruits we moderns have inherited." It seems that the Athenian
playwright Aeschylus considered his participation at Marathon to be his
greatest achievement in life (rather than his plays) since on his gravestone
there was the following epigram:
" This tomb the dust of Aeschylus doth hide, Euphorion's son and fruitful
Gela's pride. How tried his valor, Marathon may tell, And long-haired Medes,
who knew it all too well."
Militarily, a major lesson for the Greeks was the potential of the hoplite
phalanx. This style had developed during internecine warfare amongst the
Greeks; since each city-state fought in the same way, the advantages and
disadvantages of the hoplite phalanx had not been obvious. Marathon was the
first time a phalanx faced more lightly armed troops, and revealed how
effective the hoplites could be in battle. The phalanx formation was still
vulnerable to cavalry (the cause of much caution by the Greek forces at the
Battle of Plataea), but used in the right circumstances, it was now shown to be
a potentially devastating weapon.
Herodotus Plan of the Battle of Marathon, 1832
The main source for the Greco-Persian Wars is the Greek historian Herodotus.
Herodotus, who has been called the "Father of History", was born in
484 in Halicarnassus, Asia Minor (then under Persian overlordship).
He wrote his Enquiries (The) Histories) around 440430, trying to
trace the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars, which would still have been
relatively recent history (the wars finally ended in 450. Herodotus's approach
was entirely novel, and at least in Western society, he does seem to have
invented "history" as we know it. As Holland has it: "For the
first time, a chronicler set himself to trace the origins of a conflict not to
a past so remote so as to be utterly fabulous, nor to the whims and wishes of
some god, nor to a people's claim to manifest destiny, but rather explanations
he could verify personally." Some subsequent ancient historians, despite
following in his footsteps, criticised Herodotus, starting with Thucydides.
Nevertheless, Thucydides chose to begin his history where Herodotus left off
(at the Siege of Sestos), and may therefore have felt that Herodotus's history
was accurate enough not to need re-writing or correcting.
Plutarch criticised Herodotus in his essay On the malice of Herodotus,
describing Herodotus as "Philobarbaros" (barbarian-lover), for not
being pro-Greek enough, which suggests that Herodotus might actually have done
a reasonable job of being even-handed.
A negative view of Herodotus was passed on to Renaissance Europe, though he
remained well read. However, since the 19th century his reputation has been
dramatically rehabilitated by archaeological finds which have repeatedly
confirmed his version of events. The prevailing modern view is that Herodotus
generally did a remarkable job in his Historiai, but that some of his specific
details (particularly troop numbers and dates) should be viewed with
skepticism. Nevertheless, there are still some historians who believe Herodotus
made up much of his story.
The Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century in his
Bibliotheca Historica, also provides an account of the Greco-Persian wars,
partially derived from the earlier Greek historian Ephorus. This account is
fairly consistent with Herodotus's. The Greco-Persian wars are also described
in less detail by a number of other ancient historians including Plutarch,
Ctesias of Cnidus, and are alluded by other authors, such as the playwright
Aeschylus. Archaeological evidence, such as the Serpent Column, also supports
some of Herodotus's specific claims.
Legends associated with the battle:
The most famous legend associated with Marathon is that of the runner
Pheidippides (or Philippides) bringing news to Athens of the battle, which is
described below. Pheidippides' run to Sparta to bring aid has other legends
associated with it. Herodotus mentions that Pheidippides was visited by the god
Pan on his way to Sparta (or perhaps on his return journey). Pan asked why the
Athenians did not honor him and the awed Pheidippides promised that they would
do so from then on. The god apparently felt that the promise would be kept, so
he appeared in battle and at the crucial moment he instilled the Persians with
his own brand of fear, the mindless, frenzied fear that bore his name:
"panic". After the battle, a sacred precinct was established for Pan
in a grotto on the north slope of the Acropolis, and a sacrifice was annually
offered. Similarly, after the victory the festival of the Agroteras Thysia
("sacrifice to the Agrotéra") was held at Agrae near Athens,
in honor of Artemis Agrotera ("Artemis the Huntress"). This was in
fulfillment of a vow made by the city before the battle, to offer in sacrifice
a number of goats equal to that of the Persians slain in the conflict. The
number was so great, it was decided to offer 500 goats yearly until the number
was filled. Xenophon notes that at his time, 90 years after the battle, goats
were still offered yearly.
Plutarch mentions that the Athenians saw the phantom of King Theseus, the
mythical hero of Athens, leading the army in full battle gear in the charge
against the Persians,] and indeed he was depicted in the mural of the Stoa
Poikile fighting for the Athenians, along with the twelve Olympian gods and
Pausanias also tells us that: They say too that there chanced to be present in
the battle a man of rustic appearance and dress. Having slaughtered many of the
foreigners with a plough he was seen no more after the engagement. When the
Athenians made enquiries at the oracle, the god merely ordered them to honor
Echetlaeus ("he of the Plough-tail") as a hero. Another tale from the
conflict is of the dog of Marathon. Aelian relates that one hoplite brought his
dog to the Athenian encampment. The dog followed his master to battle and
attacked the Persians at his master's side. He also informs us that this dog is
depicted in the mural of the Stoa Poikile.
Main article: According to Herodotus, an Athenian runner named Pheidippides was
sent to run from Athens to Sparta to ask for assistance before the battle. He
ran a distance of over 225 kilometers (140 miles), arriving in Sparta the day
after he left. Then, following the battle, the Athenian army marched the 40
kilometers (25 miles) or so back to Athens at a very high pace (considering the
quantity of armour, and the fatigue after the battle), in order to head off the
Persian force sailing around Cape Sounion. They arrived back in the late
afternoon, in time to see the Persian ships turn away from Athens, thus
completing the Athenian victory.
Later, in popular imagination, these two events were conflated, leading to a
legendary but inaccurate version of events. This myth has Pheidippides running
from Marathon to Athens after the battle, to announce the Greek victory with
the word "nenikekamen!", whereupon he promptly died of exhaustion.
Most accounts incorrectly attribute this story to Herodotus; actually, the
story first appears in Plutarch's On the Glory of Athens in the 1st century AD,
who quotes from Heracleides of Pontus's lost work, giving the runner's name as
either Thersipus of Erchius or Eucles.
Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD) gives the same story but names the runner
Philippides (not Pheidippides). In some medieval codices of Herodotus, the name
of the runner between Athens and Sparta before the battle is given as
Philippides, and this name is also preferred in a few modern editions. When the
idea of a modern Olympics became a reality at the end of the 19th century, the
initiators and organizers were looking for a great popularizing event,
recalling the ancient glory of Greece.
The idea of organizing a "marathon race" came from Michel
Bréal, who wanted the event to feature in the first modern Olympic Games
in 1896 in Athens. This idea was heavily supported by Pierre de Coubertin, the
founder of the modern Olympics, as well as the Greeks. This would echo the
legendary version of events, with the competitors running from Marathon to
Athens. So popular was this event that it quickly caught on, becoming a fixture
at the Olympic games, with major cities staging their own annual events. The
distance eventually became fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, or 42.195 km, though
for the first years it was variable, being around 25 miles (40 km)the
approximate distance from Marathon to Athens.
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