Few battles fought 2,500 years ago are important enough to be commemorated by an Olympic event (and a chocolate bar), Marathon had assumed a foremost place of importance in the history of the west. Throughout history its significance and symbolism has been frequently cited – the first time that a democratic and “free” state – the nucleus of all traditionally western ideas, defeated a despotic eastern invader and preserved its unique traditions that would one day be adopted around the world. Though the reality is perhaps more complex, it’s likely that Marathon’s fame will last for centuries more to come.
The background of the battle is dominated by the rise of the Persian Empire – which is often described as the world’s first superpower. By 500 BC it had come to cover a huge swathe of territory from India to the Greek city-states of western Turkey, and its ambitious ruler Darius I had aims at further expansion. Like the Roman Empire, the Persian was religiously tolerant and allowed rule by local elites to continue relatively uninhibited, but in this early stage (its founder, Cyrus the Great, had died in 530) rebellions were still common. The most serious occurred in Ionia – the western part of Turkey, where the Greek city-states threw off their Persian satraps and declared themselves democracies in response to a Persian-backed attack on the independent city of Naxos. In this they were inspired by the democratic example of Athens, which was tied to many of the old Ionian cities through past wars and intrigues, and by a close cultural bond as many of the Ionian cities had been founded by Athenian colonists. In response to Ionian pleas and Persian arrogance in their diplomacy, the Athenians and the Eritreans sent small task forces to aid the revolt, which saw some initial success before being brutally put down by the might of Darius’ armies. After the sea battle at Lade in 494 BC, the war was all but over, but Darius had not forgotten the impudence of the Athenians in aiding his foes.
According to the great historian Herodotus, who almost certainly spoke to survivors of the Persian wars, the impudence of Athens became an obsession for Darius, who allegedly charged a slave with telling him “master, remember the Athenians” three times every day before dinner. The first Persian expedition into Europe began in 492, and managed to subjugate Thrace and Macedon to Persian rule, though heavy storms prevented Darius’ fleet from making further inroads into Greece. He was not to be put off however, and two years later another powerful force, under his brother Artaphernes and and admiral Datis, set sail. This time, rather than going for Greece through the north, the fleet headed due west through the Cyclades, finally conquering Naxos along the way before arriving on mainland Greece in mid-summer. The first stage of Darius’ plan of revenge, the burning and humiliation of Athen’s partner in supporting the Ionian revolt – Eretria – was achieved quickly, leaving his foremost enemy alone to withstand the might of the Persian Empire.
Artaphernes’ army was accompanied by Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens who had been ousted at the beginning of the city’s transition into democracy and had fled to the Persian court. His advice was to land the Persian troops at the bay of Marathon, which was a good spot for a landing just a day’s march away from the city. The command of the Athenian army, meanwhile, was entrusted to ten different generals – each representing one of the ten tribes that made up the citizen body of the city-state – under the loose leadership of the Polymarch Callimachus. It is the general Miltiades, however, who emerged out of Marathon with the greatest fame. He had grown up as a Greek vassal of Darius in Asia, and had already tried to sabotage his forces by destroying an important bridge during the Great King’s retreat from an earlier campaign in Scythia, before turning on him during the Ionian revolt. After defeat, he had been forced to flee and take his military skill to Athens, where he was more experienced at fighting the Persians than any other leader. Miltiades then advised the Athenian army to move swiftly to block the two exits from the bay of Marathon – this was a risky move, for the force of 9,000 under Callimachus’ command was the everything the city had, and if the Persians brought them to battle with their much larger army at Marathon and won then the city would be completely exposed, and likely to suffer the same fate as Eretria.
Help did come from an unexpected source, the tiny city-state of Plataea, which sent another 1000 men to reinforce the Athenians, who then sent Pheidippides, the best runner in the city, to contact the Spartans, who would not come for another week, by which time their sacred festival of the Carneia would be done. Meanwhile, an uneasy stalemate prevailed in the bay of Marathon for five days, with neither side wanting to begin the battle. It was in the Athenian’s interest to wait for Spartan help, while the Persians were wary of attacking the fortified Athenian camp and of risking battle too soon against a relatively unknown quantity. The size of their army is harder to guess, but even the most conservative of modern historians place it at around 25,000, skewing the odds in their favour. They were, however, more lightly armed than the Greeks, who fought in armour and wielding long pikes in a tight phalanx formation, while Persian troops put more of an emphasis on maneuverability and skill with the bow .
On the fifth day, the battle began, despite the lack of Spartan help. There are two theories why; one is that the Persians re-embarked their cavalry to take the Greeks in the rear, thus giving Miltiades – who was always urging Callimachus to be more aggressive – an opportunity to attack while the enemy were weaker. The other is simply that the Persians tried to attack, and when Militiades saw them advancing he ordered his own troops forward in order to wrestle back the initiative. The two are not mutually exclusive, and it is also possible that the Persian infantry advance was planned in tandem with the flanking move of the cavalry. What is certain is that finally, on the 12th September 490 BC, the battle of Marathon began.
When the distance between the two armies was narrowed to around 1500 metres, Miltiades gave the order for the centre of the Athenian line to be thinned to just four ranks, before continuing his men’s advance against the much larger Persian army. In order to limit the effectiveness of the Persian archers, he gave his heavily armoured troops the order to run once they were close enough , crying “at them!” The Persians were astonished by this wall of spear-carrying armoured men coming towards them at full pelt, and their arrows did little damage. The collision when it came was brutal, and the heavier Greek soldiers came off by far the better. The Persians had placed their best men in the centre but their flanks consisted of poorly armed levies, while the Greek left was commanded in person by Callimachus, and the right was overseen by Arimnestos, the leader of the Plataeans. It was here that the battle was won, as the levies were crushed, leaving the Greek flanks free to turn on the Persian center, which was enjoying success against the thinner Athenian line in the middle.
Now surrounded on all sides, the elite Persian troops broke and ran, and many drowned in the local swamps in a desperate attempt to flee. More fled to their ships, and though the Athenians were able to capture seven as the desperate men clambered aboard, most got away. It was here that Callimachus was killed in the mad rush to catch the Persians, and according to one account his body was pierced by so many spears that it remained upright even in death. Despite the death of their commander, the Greeks had won a stunning victory for very minor losses. While thousands of Persians lay dead on the field, Herodotus reports only 192 Athenians and 11 Plataeans killed (though the true figure might be closer to 1000.) The Persian fleet then moved out of the bay to attack Athens directly, but seeing Miltiades and his troops already there they gave up and returned to the furious Darius. Marathon did not end the wars against Persia, but was the first turning point in establishing the success of the Greek, and specifically Athenian way, which would eventually give rise to all western culture as we know it. Thus, according to some, Marathon is the most important battle in history.