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The Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The battle was fought on the Marathon plain of northeastern Attica and marked the first blows of the Greco-Persian War.
With the Persians closing in on the Greek capitol, Athenian general Miltiades took command of the hastily assembled army. Miltiades weakened the center of his outnumbered force to strengthen its wings, causing confusion among the invading Persians.
His strategy was victorious over the Persians’ strength, and the victory of “the Marathon men” captured the collective imagination of the Greeks. The tale of the messenger Pheidippides running 25 miles to Athens to deliver the news of the Persian defeat inspired the creation of the modern marathon.
The Cause of the Battle of Marathon
The Battle of Marathon was fought because the Persian Army wanted to defeat the Greek city-states that supported the uprisings in Ionia, part of modern-day Turkey, against the Persian Empire.
The first encounter on the Greek mainland between East (Persia) and West (Greece) took place in August or September of 490 B.C., on the small seaside plain of Marathon, 26 miles northeast of Athens. The Persian expeditionary force of Darius I was not large, perhaps numbering under 30,000.
Lead by generals Hippias, Datis and Artaphernes, the Persian Army arrived confident after storming the nearby Greek city-state of Eretria. No allies except the Plataeans joined the Athenian resistance of less than 10,000 troops, and some autocratic regimes in Attica supported the invaders in the hope of toppling the fledgling democracy.
What Happened at the Battle of Marathon?
To meet the larger invading force, the Athenian army commander Miltiades thinned out his army's center and reinforced the wings, hoping that his hoplites—heavily armed foot soldiers—could hold the middle while his flanks broke through the lighter-clad Persian infantry. In fact, the Athenian center broke, but it held long enough for the Athenians to rout the Persian wings and meet in the rear, causing a general panic among the invaders.
The Persians would invade Greece again in 480 B.C. under Xerxes I, son of Darius, who planned to succeed in conquering Greece where his father had failed. The allied Greek city-states under King Leonidas of Sparta held off the Persian invasion for seven days in the Battle of Thermopylae, earning them a place in history for their last stand in defense of their native soil. But it was the initial victory of the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon that is most remembered today.
Almost immediately, the victory of “the Marathon men” captured the collective imagination of the Greeks. Ceremonial funeral mounds of the legendary 192 Athenian dead and the loyal Plataeans were erected on the battlefield. Epigrams were composed and panoramic murals were put on display.
Most of what we know about the Battle of Marathon comes from the account of the historian Herodotus, who wrote about it around 50 years after the battle took place in his Histories. Another famous author to immortalize the Battle was Robert Browning, who wrote the poem “Pheidippides” in 1879 to commemorate the soldier’s run from Marathon to Athens.
The First Marathon
The first organized marathon was part of the first modern Olympics in 1896. The ancient games, held from approximately 776 B.C. to 393 A.D., did not include the race.
Michael Bréal, a friend of modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin, was inspired by the legend of the Battle of Marathon to create an endurance race. The first marathon was 40 kilometers, or under 25 miles (as opposed to today’s 26.2 miles), and almost half of the competitors had to quit from exhaustion. The winner of the first marathon was Spiridon Louis, a Greek shepherd who never ran another competitive race again.
The journey of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens also inspired the first Boston Marathon on April 19, 1897. The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon and is also notable for allowing women to compete in 1972 when the first Olympic marathon for women wasn’t held until 1984.
Who Really Won the Battle of Marathon
Constantinos Lagos holds a BA in History from Athens University and an MA and PhD in Ancient History from Durham University. He teaches History in the Hellenic Air Force Academy and the Hellenic Open University. He is the author of a study of the Battle of Fort Rupel (6-10 April 1941) and of a biography of Constantine Perrikos, an aviator sunlight in the Greek wartime resistance. Since 2014, he has been a member of the international archaeological team excavating the ancient city of Tenea in Greece.
Fotis Karyanos holds degrees in History and Archaeology from Athens University and an MBA from Alba Graduate Business School. He is very active in the field of research and innovation in Greece. Ancient History and Archaeology, however remain his consuming passion.
John Carr (translator) is a retired journalist living in Athens. Now an established historian in his own right, his previous books include Sparta's Kings, On Spartan Wings and a third book The Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-41 is awaiting publication.
The Battle of Marathon took place in 490 BC 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 had 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. At the time of the battle, Sparta and Athens were the two largest city-states in Greece.
Although the Greek commentator Herodotus gives no estimate to the size of the opposing forces, Simonides claims 200,00 Persians, while Plato raises this figure to 500,000! Modern thinking reduces both of these estimates to around 25,000 plus 1,000 cavalry. The Greek forces have been estimated to be in the region of 9,000 - 10,000 Athenians with 1,000 Plataeans. Even so, the defending force was considerably smaller than that of their enemy.
This however, is just one area in which the book successfully, in my mind, argues the case of the figures. The main Greek warriors were the Hoplites, the Heavy Infantry. These well-drilled, well-equipped soldiers came from the wealthier families and spared no expense on armour and weapons. There was, however, a secondary unit within the Greek forces, the Light Infantry. These came from the poorer "servile classes" and had little or no armour and were armed with either a sword or a hatchet. This force of Light Infantry would have accompanied the Hoplites, making darting runs in and out of the enemy troops, harassing and weakening the enemy strength. Taking these additional troops into account, the Greeks were not quite as outnumbered as first implied!
This is an intriguing and sometimes exiting book. The authors give a generous account of this era of History, but then, using reasoned argument and knowledge of ancient tactics, shatter the long-held belief of the "Valiant defender overcoming overwhelming odds. One only has to look at the wonderfully presented maps to understand the territory the Persians would be fighting on. Most of the land around Marathon was flat, marshy and held little cover, while mountains and deep ravines faced them.
The authors also examine the whereabouts of the so-called "lost cavalry". The Persian heavy cavalry were much feared throughout the ancient world, being well-trained, ferocious and famed for their ability in battle. Ancient History tells us that the 1,000 or so heavy cavalry the Persian commander had at his disposal were unused. Our authors can produce historical references to them being used in the weak centre of the Greek phalanx. Indeed, it was the use of the cavalry, that actually was the undoing of the invaders. As they hit the centre of the opposing Greeks, the defenders gave ground. This caused the cavalry to push on thinking the day would be won, but the Hoplites and Light Infantry on the flanks turned into the Persians creating a pincer movement which meant the attackers were fighting on three fronts. Given no choice, the heavily armoured cataphracts of the Persian cavalry turned tail and fled to their waiting ships.
The authors have used a tremendous amount of research in producing this book, quoting one historical theory against a second and backing this up with original quotations. This is made evident by the large collection of notes at the back of the book. Also at the back is an interesting comparison between Marathon and Agincourt, well worthy of a read!
Finally, the legend of Phillipedes running the 26 odd miles to Athens to tell of the victory is dispelled! A courier by the name of Pheidippides was tasked with running to Sparta to request help which the Spartans had pledged. There is, however, no record of a runner being sent to Athens and therefore no record of what the runner's mission was. Runners were certainly used, but considering the distance, they were used sparingly. Using one to announce a victory seems a waste of resources, especially when the chap expires after giving the message!
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The authors have researched their subject well and present their arguments well, backing them up with facts, quotes and figures. Marathon has always been an emotive subject among the Ancient History fraternity. I feel the majority of questions have been answered, especially that concerning the "lost cavalry". With researchers of this calibre, it becomes a joy to read their theories on how ancient histories were conducted and dispells many of the myths ventured by the ill-informed.
An excellent book containing 8 chapters, 5 appendices, photos and maps, a bibliography and over 100 pages of notes. Every credit to the authors for their persistence and research. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Ancient Greek history.
Interesting Facts About Battle of Marathon: 1-5
1. The Battle of Marathon was the first invasion on Greece by the then mighty Persian Empire. The battle took place in 490 B.C.
2. Persia invaded Greece because two Greek cities – Eretria and Athens aided Ionia (a city under Persian Empire) during the famous Ionian revolt. It was actually a revolt attempted by Ionia to overthrow the Persian Empire.
3. Eretria and Athens did succeed initially and managed to burn and destroy Sardis but the Persian army eventually managed to suppress the revolt and Eretria and Athens had to retreat after suffering immense losses.
4. King Darius I of Persia swore to take revenge on those two Greek cities and even commissioned one of his servants to remind him thrice every day before dinner about the pending revenge.
5. Ionian Revolt was suppressed at Battle of Lade in 494 B.C. after which Darius I started plans to invade and subjugate Greece and eventually launching an invasion in 490 B.C.
Battle of Marathon
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Battle of Marathon, (September 490 bce ), in the Greco-Persian Wars, decisive battle fought on the Marathon plain of northeastern Attica in which the Athenians, in a single afternoon, repulsed the first Persian invasion of Greece. Command of the hastily assembled Athenian army was vested in 10 generals, each of whom was to hold operational command for one day. The generals were evenly divided on whether to await the Persians or to attack them, and the tie was broken by a civil official, Callimachus, who decided in favour of an attack. Four of the generals then ceded their commands to the Athenian general Miltiades, thus effectively making him commander in chief.
The Greeks could not hope to face the Persians’ cavalry contingent on the open plain, but before dawn one day the Greeks learned that the cavalry was temporarily absent from the Persian camp, whereupon Miltiades ordered a general attack upon the Persian infantry. In the ensuing battle, Miltiades led his contingent of 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans to victory over the Persian force of 15,000 by reinforcing his battle line’s flanks and thus decoying the Persians’ best troops into pushing back his centre, where they were surrounded by the inward-wheeling Greek wings. On being almost enveloped, the Persian troops broke into flight. By the time the routed Persians reached their ships, they had lost 6,400 men the Greeks lost 192 men, including Callimachus. The battle proved the superiority of the Greek long spear, sword, and armour over the Persians’ weapons.
According to legend, an Athenian messenger was sent from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 25 miles (40 km), and there he announced the Persian defeat before dying of exhaustion. This tale became the basis for the modern marathon race. Herodotus, however, relates that a trained runner, Pheidippides (also spelled Phidippides, or Philippides), was sent from Athens to Sparta before the battle in order to request assistance from the Spartans he is said to have covered about 150 miles (240 km) in about two days.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.
Record-Breaking Persian Army and Strength
Facts about the Battle of Marathon | Image: Elite Persian warriors known as the “Immortals”.
To say that the Persian army was large would be an understatement. It is generally believed that the Persian Empire and its army was by a mile the largest army to exist at that time. The Persians could boast of military generals such as Dates and Artaphernes.
In addition to marching about 25 to 50 thousand soldiers to Greece, the Persian army was accompanied by a staggering 600 oar-powered ships, making the strength of the Persian army a force none like ever witnessed before that time.
The Battle of Marathon
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 12 September 490 BC, the battle of Marathon began.
An idea of some of the troop types that Darius and Artaphernes might have had under their command. The Immortals were the best of the Persian infantry. Credit: Pergamon Museum / Commons.
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.
Heavy Greek infantry were known as Hoplites. They were trained to run in full armour, and the Hoplite race was one of the events in the early Olympic games.
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.
The Greek Plain of Marathon
The Persian Wars lasted from 492 - 449 BCE. and include the Battle of Marathon. In 490 B.C. (possibly on August or September 12), perhaps 25,000 Persians, under King Darius' generals, landed on the Greek Plain of Marathon.
The Spartans were unwilling to provide timely help for the Athenians, so Athens' army, which was about 1/3 the size of the Persian's, supplemented by 1,000 Plataeans, and led by Callimachus (polemarch) and Miltiades (former tyrant in the Chersonesus), fought the Persians. The Greeks won by encircling the Persian forces.
The administration of democracy
The internal Athenian reaction to this latest military success of the Cleisthenic democracy was to take the development of that democracy a stage further. First, a change was made in the method of appointment to the chief magistracy, the archonship. From then on the archons were appointed by lot from a preliminary elected list instead of being directly elected, as the stratēgoi continued to be. There were nine archons and a secretary. Three of the archons had special functions: the basileus, or “king” the polemarchos, originally a military commander (though after the institution of the Cleisthenic stratēgoi, military authority passed to this new panel of 10) and the “eponymous archon,” who gave his name to the year. Interpretation of the significance of the change varies according to the view taken of the importance of the archonship itself in the period 508–487 perhaps it was a young man’s office and of no great consequence. The period is patchily documented, however, and in any case it would be eccentric to query the distinction of some of the names preserved. The point has a bearing on the composition and authority of the ancient Council of the Areopagus, which was recruited from former archons. The role of the Areopagus was to be much reduced in the late 460s, and if the archonship was after all not especially prestigious, then the importance of that subsequent attack on the Areopagus would be correspondingly reduced. A more substantial reason for thinking that the archonship mattered less after 508 than it had, for instance, under the Peisistratids lies in the “seesaw” argument that the rise of the stratēgia must have led to a fall in the power and prestige of the archonship.
The reform of 487 was probably the first time that lot or “sortition” had been used, though it is possible that Cleisthenes, or even Solon, used it as a device for distributing posts equitably among basically elected magistrates. This would not be unthinkable in the 6th century, when the Athenian state still contained so many aristocratic features after all, the Romans used sortition in this way, not as a consciously “democratic” procedure but as a way of resolving the competing claims of ambitious individuals. If so, sortition did not necessarily entail a downgrading of the importance of the office of archon. There is a further slight uncertainty about the system of “sortition from an elected shortlist.” The usual and probably correct view is that this system was discarded, not long after 457, for the archonship and other offices appointed to by lot in favour of unqualified sortition. But there is enough evidence for the survival of the preliminary stage of election to have encouraged a theory that the hybrid system continued in use down to the 4th century. This, if true, would have serious implications for our picture of Athenian democracy, but the best evidence for the hybrid system is in untypically conservative contexts, such as appointment to deme priesthoods.
Historical Importance of the Battle of Marathon
Prior to their defeat at Marathon, the Persians rarely tasted any defeat. Darius had successfully built his Persian army into a fierce and formidable fighting force. Greece’s win showed that even the mightiest of armies can fall, and that resistance if pursued properly could triumph over tyranny.
Another significant lesson that the Athenians drew from Marathon was that they knew that the Spartans were not the most reliable of allies. The Greeks started to hold a strong belief that they could securely defend themselves from any army that sought to do them harm.
Most importantly, the Battle of Marathon served as a vital pillar upon which the entire Classical Greek civilization was built. It became symbolic for what could be achieved with high sense of self-belief, confidence and unity within a nation. Obviously, Greek civilization is what ended up forming a crucible in which the bulk part of our Western civilization was brewed, influencing all of the Mediterranean and European history for two millennia. Had the Greeks not won, we shudder to think whether the “golden age” of Athens would ever have rose to such heights that it attained.
From the Persian perspective, the Greek city-states represented a threat to the stability of the Persian Empire. The Persian generals believed that were Greek’s interference in the affairs of Persia go unchecked, the Persian Empire would go on to fall. Darius’ goal was to make an example of the Greeks and show to the world what could happen to anyone that dared defy the Persian Empire.
Another legend regarding the run of Pheidippides is that while on his way to Sparta to ask for aid Pheidippides was visited by Pan, the Greek god of the wild, shepherds and flocks. Though a peaceful god, when awakened from his noontime nap, Pan was capable of emitting a shout that caused the flocks to stampede. Pan asked Pheidippides why the Athenians didn’t honour him and Pheidippides replied that they would do so from now. Pan believed his word and aided the Athenians in the battle by instilling in the Persians a sudden, mindless, frenzied fear that still bears his name: “panic”. After the battle, the Athenians established a precinct for Pan and offered a sacrifice to him annually.