The Battle of Marathon remains one of the most important military clashes in history. Not only did its result signal the beginning of the “Golden Age of Greece”, but it was also a key moment in the rise of western civilisation and one of its key espoused values: democracy.
The battle is also the story of how one Greek city-state defied the greatest empire of the time – and won. Here are 10 facts about it.
1. It was preceded by the Ionian Revolt
Between 499 and 493 BC, the Greeks in Asia Minor (modern-day western Turkey), revolted against the Persian Empire. They were aided in this struggle by two Greek cities to the west of the Aegean sea: Athens and Eretria.
By 493 BC, the Persians had crushed this revolt. Yet the Athenians’ support of the Ionian Greeks had put their city at odds with the most powerful man in the world, the Great King of Persia, Darius I – and he wasn’t about to forget it. Every night Darius had a servant remind him after dinner, “Remember the Athenians”.
2. The Persian Expedition was the largest amphibious invasion the world had ever seen
In 490 BC, Darius ordered a Persian expedition to cross the Aegean and punish Athens and Eretria for their role in the Ionian Revolt. Under the command of a Mede (someone who hailed from Media in modern-day northwestern Iran) called Dates and Darius’ nephew Artaphernes, 600 triremes (oar-powered warships) set sail for Greece.
It is probable there were also substantial numbers of transport ships to carry horses and supplies. It is commonly believed that the Persian army being transported numbered between 25,000 and 30,000 men. Never before had the world seen such a large amphibious invasion.
3. An Athenian guided the Persian expedition
Darius planned to reinstate the exiled Athenian tyrant Hippias, who had been living at the Persian king’s court, as ruler of Athens. With Spartan aid, the Athenians had expelled Hippias from Athens twenty years earlier, abolishing tyranny and establishing the first-recorded democracy in its place. By reinstating Hippias in Athens, Darius knew he would gain an indebted and valuable ally in the west.
Hippias sailed with the expedition and advised that they land at the Bay of Marathon.
4. The Bay of Marathon was well-suited for Persian warfare
The Bay consisted of a large eight-mile-long plain – perfect for horse skirmishing and light infantry. As the Persian army’s strengths lay in its light cavalry and archers, Marathon appeared an ideal landing place.
5. The Athenian army consisted almost entirely of hoplites
These part-time soldiers were equipped in bronze armour and armed primarily with a spear called a doru and a large bronze-covered shield called an aspis. They fought in tight formations called phalanxes.
Despite not being full-time soldiers, these men were more than a match for the enemy’s lightly-clad infantry in close combat. The hoplite style of fighting would go on to epitomise ancient Greek warfare.
6. The Spartans were not at Marathon…
The Greek army at Marathon consisted mainly of Athenians as well as a small force of Plataeans. But there were no Spartans present; at that time, the city-state of Sparta’s legendary soldiers were in the middle of celebrating a religious festival.
Although the Spartans promised to send military aid to the Athenians, their laws stated they could only do so after the full moon had passed. Their aid thus arrived too late to help the Athenian army.
7. … and neither, it would seem, was the Persian cavalry
Mystery shrouds the whereabouts of the Persian cavalry – a force that was crucial to the empire’s military tactics – on the day of the Battle of Marathon. Some believe they were away, gathering supplies from nearby villages; others believe they were still at the Persian camp, not yet ready for battle.
Others still suggest they had already been boarded onto ships destined to attack Athens.
Whatever the reason, it seems more than likely that the cavalry was indeed split off from the Persian army on that morning.
8. The Athenians seized the opportunity
Upon hearing reports that the deadly Persian cavalry was elsewhere, the Athenian army – commanded by Miltiades – realised this was their opportunity to attack. Descending onto the plain, the hoplites slowly advanced towards the Persians before charging the last 100 metres in full armour.
9. Miltiades’ gamble paid off… just!
Although Miltiades kept both flanks of his force at full strength, he weakened the centre of his infantry phalanx to four ranks deep, which was half its usual depth.
This nearly proved disastrous as the weakened Athenian centre almost collapsed in the ensuing fight. Luckily for Miltiades, however, his army’s stronger wings overcame the Persians’ outer flanks before enveloping the remaining Persians in the centre. Athens’ victory soon followed.
The Athenians lost 192 men at Marathon, mostly, we can presume, in the weakened Athenian centre. Their burial mound – known as “Soros” – is still visible to this day on the plain of Marathon.
As for the Persians, their 6,000 dead were left unburied, a visual spectacle for any wishing to know what the easterners looked like.
10. The marathon running race originates from the Athenians’ victory
Following their success at Marathon, legend has it the Athenians dispatched a runner named Pheidippides to announce the victory in Athens – some 26 miles away. Upon reaching Athens, Pheidippides is said to have exclaimed, “Nike!” (the Greek word for victory), before collapsing dead from exhaustion.
The 26.2-mile-long marathon run around the world today remembers the run of the soldier Pheidippides.