The Battle of Marathon

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On a sweltering summer day, the nine elected magisterial archons of Athens waited breathlessly for news, surrounded by a restless crowd of citizens. Their army, along with a small number of allies, had engaged with a larger force of Persians in the small bay of Marathon — desperately hoping that the claustrophobic landscape would prevent the near-invincible forces led by King Darius I from wreaking terrible revenge on the city of Athens.

A commotion outside the city walls caught the attention of the archons, and suddenly the gates were thrust open. A soldier by the name of Pheidippides burst through still clad in full armor, splattered with blood and dripping with sweat. He had just run the full 40 kilometers from Marathon to Athens. 

His proclamation, “Rejoice! We are victorious!” echoed across the expectant crowd, and in the second before they broke into a jubilant celebration, Pheidippides, overcome with exhaustion, staggered and fell to the ground, dead — or so the myth of the origins of the first Marathon goes.

The romantic tale of the runner’s joyful sacrifice (which caught the imagination of 19th century writers and popularized the myth, but was in reality far more impressive, and far less tragic) tells of an incredible long distance run to beg the military assistance of Sparta, and the determined quick march of the battle-worn Athenian army from Marathon back to Athens to defend their city.

What was the Battle of Marathon?

The Battle of Marathon was a conflict fought in 490 B.C. on the seaside Grecian plain of Marathon. Athenians led a small group of Greek coalition forces to victory against the powerful invading Persian army, which was much larger and much more dangerous. 

To Defend Athens

The Persian army had instilled fear in Greek cities for generations, and were believed to be practically undefeatable. But their utter victory at Eretria, an ally of Athens and a city that they had laid siege to and enslaved after being offered surrender, was a tactical mistake that showed Persia’s hand. 

Faced with the same terrible and fast approaching enemy, debate raged in Athens as it had in Eretria as to the safest course of action for the city, the downside to democracy being the slow and dissentious style of decision making.

Many insisted that surrendering and begging for terms would save them, but Datis — the Persian general — and his forces sent a clear message after burning and enslaving Athens’ neighboring city. 

There would be no compromises. Persia wanted revenge for Athen’s disrespect, and they were going to get it. 

The Athenians realized they had only two options — to defend their families to the end, or to be killed, very likely tortured, enslaved, or mutilated (as the Persians had a fun habit of cutting off the ears, noses, and hands of their defeated enemies). 

Desperation can be a powerful motivator. And Athens was desperate.

The Persian Advance

Datis chose to land his army at the Bay of Marathon, a largely sound military decision, as the natural promontory provided excellent shelter for his ships, and the plains onshore offered good movement for his cavalry. 

He also knew that Marathon was far enough away that the Athenian army wouldn’t be able to surprise him while his own forces unloaded the ships, a scene of utter pandemonium that would have placed his men in a vulnerable position. 

There was a single disadvantage, though — the hills surrounding the plain offered only one exit through which a large army could quickly march, and the Athenians had fortified it, ensuring that any attempt to take it would be dangerous and deadly. 

But Athens lay within a day’s hard march or two days’ leisurely one, should the Greeks not approach for battle. And that perfect distance was all the allure needed for Datis to settle on Marathon as a landing point for his army.

As soon as Athens learned of Datis’ arrival, their army marched immediately, having been held in readiness since word had arrived of the fall of Eretria. 10 generals at the head of 10,000 soldiers set out for Marathon, tight-lipped and fearful, but ready to fight to the last man if necessary.

The First Marathon

Before the Athenian army departed, the elected city magistrates, or archons, had dispatched Pheidippides — an athletic message carrier whose profession, called a “hemerodromos” (meaning “day-long-runner”), bordered a sacred calling — on a desperate plea for assistance. Having trained dedicatedly for most of his life, he was able to travel long distances over difficult terrain, and at that moment, he was invaluable. 

Pheidippides ran to Sparta, a distance of about 220 kilometers (over 135 miles), in only two days. When he arrived, exhausted, and managed to sputter out the Athenian request for military assistance, he was crushed to hear a refusal.

The Spartans assured him that they were eager to help, but they were in the middle of their festival of Carneia, a fertility celebration associated with the god Apollo; a period during which they observed a strict peace. The Spartan army couldn’t possibly assemble and provide Athens the aid they requested for another ten days. 

With this declaration, Pheidippides likely thought it was the end of everything he knew and loved. But he took no time to mourn. 

Instead, he turned around and made the incredible run, another 220 kilometers over rocky, mountainous terrain in just two days, back to Marathon, warning the Athenians that no immediate help could be expected from Sparta.

They had no choice but to make this stand with nothing but the help of a small allied force — numbers and morale only bolstered by a detachment of soldiers from the nearby Greek city of Platea, repaying the support Athens had shown them in defending against an invasion some years prior.

But the Greeks remained outnumbered and outmatched, the enemy they faced, according to ancient historians, standing at over 100,000 men strong.

Holding the Line

The Greek position was a terribly precarious one. The Athenians had called upon every available soldier in order to have any chance against the Persians, and yet they were still outnumbered by at least two to one.

On top of that, defeat at Marathon meant the utter destruction of Athens. If the Persians made it to the city, they would be able to block whatever might remain of the Greek army from returning to defend it, and Athens had no remaining soldiers left within. 

In the face of this, the Greek generals concluded that their only option was to hold a defensive position for as long as possible, wedged between the fortified hills that surrounded the Bay of Marathon. There, they could attempt to bottleneck the Persian attack, minimize the numerical advantage that the Persians brought, and hopefully keep them from reaching Athens until the Spartans could arrive.

The Persians could guess what the Greeks were up to — they would have done the same had they been on the defensive — and so they hesitated to launch a decisive frontal attack.

They fully understood the advantages that the Greeks were deriving from their position, and while they might be able to overwhelm them eventually by virtue of numbers, losing a large portion of their Persian forces on a foreign shore was a logistical problem that Datis was not willing to risk. 

This stubbornness forced the two armies to remain at a stalemate for about five days, facing one another across the plain of Marathon with only minor skirmishes breaking out, the Greeks managing to keep hold of their nerve and their defensive line.

Unexpected Offensive

On the sixth day, however, the Athenians inexplicably abandoned their plan of maintaining a defensive stance and attacked the Persians, a decision that seems foolhardy considering the enemy they faced. But reconciling Greek historian Herodotus’s accounts with a line in the Byzantine historical record known as the Suda gives a reasonable explanation as to why they might have done so. 

It states that as dawn broke on the sixth day, the Greeks gazed across the plains to see that the Persian cavalry forces had suddenly disappeared, right from under their noses. 

The Persians had realized they couldn’t stay in the bay indefinitely, and decided to make the move that would risk the least amount of life (for the Persians. They weren’t so concerned about the Greeks; the exact opposite, actually).

They left their infantry to keep the Athenian army occupied at Marathon, but under cover of darkness they’d packed up and loaded their fast-moving cavalry back onto their ships…  

Sending them up the coast to land them closer to the undefended city of Athens.

With the departure of the cavalry, the Persian forces left to face them were significantly reduced in numbers. The Athenians knew that to stay on the defensive in Marathon would mean returning to a destroyed home, their city plundered and burned. And worse — to the slaughter or imprisonment of their families; their wives; their children.

With no choice but to act, the Greeks took the initiative. And they possessed one final secret weapon against their enemy, by the name of Miltiades — the general who led the attack. Years prior, he had accompanied the Persian king, Darius I, during his campaigns against the fierce nomadic warrior tribes north of the Caspian Sea. He betrayed Darius when tensions rose with Greece, returning home to take a command in the Athenian army.

This experience provided him with something invaluable: a firm knowledge of Persian battle tactics. 

Moving quickly, Miltiades carefully lined up the Greek forces opposite to the Persian approach. He spread the center of the line thin to extend its reach so as to lower the risk of being encircled, and placed his strongest soldiers on the two wings — a direct contrast to the normal order of battle in the ancient world, which concentrated strength in the center. 

With all prepared, the trumpets sounded and Miltiades ordered, “At them!” 

The Greek army charged, running courageously at full speed across the plains of Marathon, a distance of at least 1,500 meters, dodging a barrage of arrows and javelins and plunging directly into the bristling wall of Persian spears and axes.

Persia Withdraws

The Greeks had long been terrified of the Persian military force, and even without the cavalry, their enemy still heavily outnumbered them. Sprinting, shouting, furious and ready to attack, that fear was pushed aside, and it must have seemed insane to the Persians. 

The Greeks were spurred on by desperate courage, and they were determined to clash with the Persians to defend their freedom. 

Coming swiftly to battle, the strong Persian center held firm against the ruthless Athenians and their allies, but their weaker flanks collapsed under the force of the Greek advance and they were quickly left with no choice but to withdraw. 

Seeing them begin to retreat, the Greek wings displayed excellent discipline in not following the fleeing enemy, and instead turned back in to attack what remained of the Persian center to relieve the pressure on their own thin center forces.

Now encircled on three sides, the entire Persian line collapsed and ran back toward their ships, the ferocious Greeks in hot pursuit, cutting down all those they could reach. 

Wild in their fear, some of the Persians tried to escape via the nearby swamps, ignorant and unaware of the treacherous terrain, where they drowned. Others scrambled and made it back to the water, floundering to their ships in a panic and rowing quickly away from the dangerous shore. 

Refusing to relent, the Athenians splashed into the sea after them, burning a few ships and managing to capture seven, bringing them to shore. The rest of the Persian fleet — still with a staggering 600 ships or more — managed to escape, but 6,400 Persians lay dead on the battlefield, and more had drowned in the swamps. 

All while the Greek forces had lost only 200 men.

March Back to Athens

The battle may have been won, but the Greeks knew that the threat to Athens was far from defeated. 

In another feat of incredible strength and endurance, the main body of the Athenian army reformed and marched back to Athens at top speed, arriving in time to dissuade the Persian forces from landing and launching their planned attack on the city. 

And, showing up a little late — only a few days after the Athenian’s victory — 2,000 Spartan soldiers arrived, having marched immediately upon the conclusion of their festival and moving their entire army over the 220 kilometers in only three days.

Finding no battle to be fought, the Spartans toured the bloody battlefield, still littered with numerous rotting corpses —  the cremation and burial of which took days — and offered their praise and congratulations. 

Why Did the Battle of Marathon Happen?

The struggle between the rapidly growing Persian Empire and Greece had been an ongoing conflict for years, before the Battle of Marathon itself took place. Darius I, king of Persia — who’d likely set his sights on Greece as far back as 513 B.C. — began his conquest by first sending envoys to attempt a diplomatic conquest of the northernmost of the Grecian kingdoms: Macedonia, the homeland of future Greek leader, Alexander the Great.

Their king, who had watched Persia’s forces easily consume all that stood in their path in the years leading up to this, was far too terrified to resist the takeover. 

They were accepted as a vassal kingdom of Persia, and in doing so, opened a route for Persian influence and rule into Greece. This easy submission was not soon forgotten by Athens and Sparta, and over the following years they watched as Persian influence spread ever closer towards them.

Athens Angers Persia

Even so, it wouldn’t be until 500 B.C. that Darius would make strides towards the conquest of stronger Greek resistance. 

The Athenians stood in support of a resistance movement called the Ionian Revolt and dreams of democracy, sparked when subjugated Greek colonies were provoked into rebellion against the tyrants put in place (by regional Persian governors) to control them. Athens, along with the smaller port city of Eretria, were amenable to the cause and readily pledged their assistance. 

A force made primarily of Athenians attacked Sardis — an old and significant metropolis of Asia Minor (most of what is modern-day Turkey) — and one soldier, likely overcome with the ardor of mid-battle enthusiasm, accidentally started a fire in a small dwelling. The dry reed buildings went up like tinder, and the resulting inferno consumed the city.

When word was brought to Darius, his first response was to inquire as to who the Athenians were. Upon receiving the answer, he swore vengeance upon them, commanding one of his attendants to say to him, three times every day before he sat down to his dinner, “Master, remember the Athenians.” 

Enraged and preparing himself for another attack on Greece, he sent messengers to every one of its major cities and demanded they offer up earth and water — a symbol of total submission.

Few dared to refuse, but the Athenians promptly threw those messengers into a pit to die, as did the Spartans, who added a curt, “Go dig it out yourselves,” in response.

In their mutual refusal to bow down, the traditional rivals for power in the Grecian Peninsula had tied themselves together as both allies and leaders in the defense against Persia.

Darius was beyond angry — a persistent thorn in his side, the continued insolence from Athens was infuriating — and so he dispatched his army under the leadership of Datis, his best admiral, heading first toward the conquest of Eretria, a city nearby and in close relations with Athens.

It managed to endure six days of brutal siege before two noblemen of high standing betrayed the city and opened the gates, believing that their surrender would mean their survival.

That hope for leniency was met with severe and brutal disappointment as the Persians sacked the city, burned the temples, and enslaved the population.

It was a move that ultimately turned into a major tactical error; the Athenians, faced with the same life and death decision, knew that to follow Eretria would mean their death. And, forced into action, they took their stand in Marathon. 

How Did Marathon Impact History?

The victory at Marathon may not have been a crushing defeat of Persia as a whole, but it still stands as a major turning point.

After the Athenian’s impressive defeat of the Persians, Datis — the general in charge of leading Darius’ army — withdrew his forces from Grecian territory and returned to Persia. 

Athens had been spared the revenge of Darius, though the Persian king was far from finished. He began three years of preparation for an even larger assault on Greece, this time a full scale, massive invasion rather than a targeted raid for revenge. 

But, in late 486 B.C., only a handful of years after Marathon, he became seriously ill. The stress of dealing with a revolt in Egypt further exacerbated his poor health, and by October, he was dead.

That left his son Xerxes I to inherit the throne of Persia — as well as Darius’s dream to conquer Greece and the preparations he had already made to do so.

For decades the mere mention of the Persian army was enough to terrify the Greek city-states — they were an unknown entity, supported by incredibly strong cavalry and vast numbers of soldiers, and seemingly impossible for the small, contentious peninsula to confront.

But the Greeks had managed to overcome insurmountable odds and succeed in protecting Athens, the jewel of Greece, from total annihilation. A victory that proved to them that, together, and with the use of careful timing and tactics, they could stand up to the might of the great Persian Empire. 

Something they would have to do only a few years later, with the arrival of the seemingly unstoppable invasion by Xerxes I. 

The Preservation of Greek Culture

The Greeks learning these lessons when they did had a powerful impact on the course of world history. They gave us philosophy, democracy, language, art, and much more; which Great Renaissance thinkers used to dig Europe out of the Dark Ages and deliver it to modernity — a reflection of just how advanced the Greeks were for their time. 

Yet while those Greek scholars were laying the groundwork for our world today, the leaders and everyday citizens were concerned about being conquered, enslaved, or slaughtered by the powerful, unknown society to the East: the Persians. 

And though the Persians — a civilization rich with its own intricacies and motivations — have been vilified by the conflict’s victors, had the Greeks’ fears been realized, the collective path of revolutionary ideas and the growth of societies would probably look nothing like they do today, and the modern world could be much different. 

If Persia had managed to burn Athens to the ground, what would our world be like, having never heard the words of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle?

The Modern Marathon

The Battle of Marathon still has influence on the world today, remembered in the world’s most popular international sporting event — the Olympics.

The story of Pheidippides’ run from Athens to Sparta was recorded by Herodotus and then later corrupted by the Greek historian, Plutarch, into the tragic declaration of victory in Athens just before the runner’s own demise.

This tale of romantic sacrifice then caught the attention of author Robert Browning in 1879, who wrote a poem entitled Pheidippides, which deeply engaged his contemporaries.

With the re-institution of a modern Olympics in 1896, the organizers of the games hoped for an event that would capture the public’s attention and also reflect upon the gilded age of ancient Greece. Michel Bréal, of France, suggested recreating the famous poetic run, and the idea caught hold. 

The first modern Olympics, held in 1896, used the path from Marathon to Athens and set the course distance at approximately 40 kilometers (25 miles). Though today’s official marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers is not based on the run in Greece, but rather on the distance regularized by the 1908 Olympics in London.

There is also a lesser known, grueling, long-distance event of 246 kilometers (153 miles) that recreates Pheidippides’ actual run from Athens to Sparta, known as the “Spartathlon.”

With hard to meet entry requirements and checkpoints set up during the actual race, the course is much more extreme, and runners are often pulled before the end due to being overly fatigued.

A Grecian named Yiannis Kouros was the first to win it and still holds the fastest times ever recorded. In 2005, outside of the normal competition, he decided to fully retrace the steps of Pheidippides and ran from Athens to Sparta and then back to Athens.

Conclusion

The Battle of Marathon marked an important shift in historical momentum as the always quarrelsome, squabbling Greeks managed to stand together and defend against the powerhouse of the Persian Empire for the first time after years of fear. 

This victory’s importance would become even more critical some years later, when Darius’ son, Xerxes I, launched a colossal invasion of Greece. Athens and Sparta were able to galvanize a number of cities, previously petrified at the thought of a Persian attack, into defending their homeland. 

They joined with the Spartans and King Leonidas during the legendary suicidal stand in the pass of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans stood against tens of thousands of Persian soldiers. It was a decision which bought time for the mobilization of Greek coalition forces that stood victorious against the same enemy at the decisive battles of Salamis and Platea — tilting the scales of power in the Greco-Persian Wars towards Greece, and giving birth to an era of Athenian imperial expansion that eventually brought it to fight Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.

Greece’s confidence in its ability to fight Persia, combined with a burning desire for revenge, would later enable the Greeks to follow the charismatic young Alexander the Great in his invasion of Persia, spreading Hellenism to the farthest reaches of ancient civilization and changing the future of the western world.  

Sources

Herodotus, The Histories, Book 6-7

The Byzantine Suda, “Cavalry Away,” https://www.cs.uky.edu/~raphael/sol/sol-html/

Fink, Dennis L., The Battle of Marathon in Scholarship, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014.

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