By the 490s BCE, the Persian Empire was the dominant power in the Mediterranean, having spent the past 40 years smashing smaller nations into submission. Luckily for the Greek poleis (city-states), the Persians had focused much of their energy on North Africa and the Middle East. An uneasy peace deal was negotiated between Persian emperor Darius and the Greek poleis, led by Athens, in 507 BCE. At the time, the Ionians – part of modern-day Turkey – were the only Greeks under Persia’s heel, and they had cooperated for the most part. But in 499 BCE, the Ionian Revolt began, and Darius launched a massive invasion in retaliation. The revolt was crushed in 5 years, but Darius knew that the mainland poleis had supported Ionia during the revolt. Darius felt he could not afford to let this perceived sleight go unpunished, and in 490 BCE, the armies of Persia and the united Greeks met at the Battle of Marathon.
ASAP: the reckless Greeks got into the Persians’ personal space and scared them off with a massive bear hug.Read on for details!
Lead-up to Battle
Persian messengers were sent to all the main Greek poleis demanding surrender. Responses varied from state to state: in civilized Athens, the messenger was simply told “no”, whereas in the rougher Sparta the Persian messenger was apparently kicked into a well. Darius had, of course, predicted this outcome and immediately mobilized his masses of troops. Eretria, a small poleis, was quickly captured by Persian commander Datis; soon after, the Persian fleet sailed towards Marathon, an Attican port. The Persians had roughly 20,000 men, including a strong force of cavalry on horseback. The average Persian soldier was lightly-armoured and mobile, armed with a spear or sword and carrying a strong wicker shield.
In contrast, the Greeks had roughly 10,000 men. These were mostly comprised of Athenian and Plataean citizen-soldiers who had been rapidly mobilized upon hearing news of the Persian invasion. Although they faced professional soldiers, the Athenians – who would likely be referred to as “reservists” or “weekend warriors” today – were highly trained, disciplined and motivated. They carried heavy shields, long spears and wore torso armour with sweet looking muscular definition inlaid. The shields, known as hoplon, were crucial to Greek tactics: hoplites as they were known moved in a strict rectangular formation that offered mutual protection and security from flanking attacks. Discipline was the key ingredient here, for if one part of the phalanx disintegrated, the rest of the formation was left unprotected.
Phalanxes worked because the overwhelming pushing force of the men in the front rank, supported by their comrades behind, could break through most enemy formations. As modern research indicates, “ancient” warfare was more about breaking the enemy’s will through frightening displays of discipline; most battles were relatively bloodless shoving matches, until one side broke and ran in fear. Then, during the “rout”, the real bloodshed began.
Greek general Miltiades formed his men up on the plain of Marathon some time in late summer of 490 BCE. Spartan support had failed to materialize (the Spartans had not yet completed their full-moon rituals) and as such the Greeks lacked their most skilled military ally. Regardless, the masses of Greeks felt reasonably prepared, motivated by the fact that they were fighting for their freedom. Miltiades formed his 10,000 men into a long phalanx, with heavy flanks and a weak centre. The Persians under general Datis formed up roughly 1 mile away.
The Persians waited tensely, expecting a slow march to close the gap between the two combatants. But suddenly, the Greeks burst into a “mad dash” towards the Persian line. (It’s unclear exactly how “mad” this dash really was, considering the phalanx had to cover a mile in full armour). The Persians – who were arrayed in one large squarish formation, and were hoping to crush their enemies with sheer numbers – were surprised when the Greek flanks began pushing to the left and the right, enveloping the Persians in a deadly bear hug. It’s possible that the rapid surrounding of the Persian formation was a result of a breakdown in discipline, and Greeks running too far in their excitement. Whatever the case, the Greek phalanxes pushed forward, jabbing with their long spears and clubbing Persians with their hoplon as the two armies became locked together. As expected, Datis had ordered his men to focus on the weak Greek centre; but the terror of being surrounded and attacked on their lightly-defended flanks soon broke the Persian resolve.
Soon, Persians were running for their lives, tripping over corpses in a desperate run to avoid being completely surrounded. The Greek flanking forces closed the trap and massacred all who remained within. Concurrently, much of Datis’ force were booking it for their ships. There, they put up a strong defence and managed to escape with most of their men and equipment. The Persians had lost 6,400 men killed, but thousands escaped to continue bothering the Greeks elsewhere in the Aegean; contemporary scholars liked Herodotus claim that only 100 Athenians died, but modern estimates bring this number closer to 1,500. As the battle ended, a young Greek named Philippides ran 26 miles (or, a marathon) to Athens to announce the Greek victory, where he promptly collapsed dead.
Miltiades’ victory, like most military successes, was plagued with mistakes from the start. Some historians claim Miltiades left his phalanx’s centre weak too draw in the Persians, but others argue that it was simply a result of spreading his small army too thin. By letting the Persians escape to their ships (instead of pursuing them and capturing them during the rout), Miltiades got a little too excited about massacring the Persians he had trapped on the plains. 6,400 men killed is in no way a small number; but the masses of Persians who escaped were able to harass Greek forces all throughout the Aegean and continue fighting well into the 480s. Although the Battle of Marathon (arguably) only postponed the Persian threat, it played a significant role in reinforcing Greek morale and proving that the smaller city-states were capable of taking on huge professional armies armed with better tactics (or better luck) and intense discipline.
In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.
- • Who? 10,000 Greeks from Athens and Plataea under general Miltiades faced off against 20,000 Persians under general Datis. They were ordered there by Emperor Darius. (Note that all numbers are very approximate. The only account of the battle was from Herodotus, a Greek fanboy).
- Where? The plains of Marathon, in Attica, an Aegean port in Greece.
- When? In the late summer of 490 BCE.
- What? The opposing forces met at Marathon; the Greeks advanced in a “mad dash” and quickly flanked the larger Persian force on both sides. Their formation was comprised of a large rectangular phalanx with strong flanks and a weak centre. The rectangular Persian formation broke under the pressure and many ran.
- Why? Persian forces had launched a massive invasion of Greece to punish the city-states for supporting the Ionian Revolt. During the battle, Persian troops were surprised and frightened by their quick encirclement by Greek hoplites. They had been drawn into the weak centre of the Greek phalanx, eager to strike a killing blow there, but became frightened and panicked when flanked. Having gotten used to quick victories over smaller victories – largely due to their overwhelming numbers – the Persians were disturbed by the “suicidal” charge of the Greeks and their nerve quickly gave out.
- Result: Decisive Greek victory. The escape of the Persian force enabled Darius to continue harassing Greek forces all throughout the Aegean, but the victory was of massive symbolic importance to the Greek city-states, particularly Athens and Plataea.
Food for Thought
Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.
- Why was Marathon chosen as the battle site? What was the terrain like, and was there symbolic significance to the location?
- Assess Miltiades’ victory. Was it a fluke, or a series of brilliant tactical decisions? How were his tactics copied by future military leaders?
- Was Marathon really “the battle that saved Western civilization”? Why or why not?
- Why did Sparta fail to participate? What were the long-term implications?
- Assess the works of Herodotus on the battle. To what extent did he exaggerate certain numbers or events?
Further Reading & Citations
Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!
- Billows, Richard A. 2010. Marathon: how one battle changed Western civilization. New York: Overlook Duckworth.
- Armayor, O. Kimball. “Herodotus’ Catalogues of the Persian Empire in the Light of the Monuments and the Greek Literary Tradition.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 108 (1978): 1-9
- Cameron, Christian. 2011. Marathon.
- Lloyd, Alan. 1973. Marathon: the story of civilizations on collision course. New York: Random House.
- Evans, Richard J. 2015. Fields of battle: retracing ancient battlefields.