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Relief depicting the Battle of Marathon. Inset: Helmet of Miltiades the Younger, Archaeological Museum of Olympia

The Magnificent Helmet of Greek Warrior Miltiades

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When a magnificent helmet was recovered from the ruins of the temple of Zeus researchers couldn't believe their eyes. It is very rare to find an item which belonged to a famous hero of the ancient Greek battlefields. The offering he brought to the temple centuries ago made his name known once again.

The Battle of Marathon is one of the most famous ancient battles in the world. The legends surrounding the meeting of two strong armies is still one of the reasons for Greek national pride. Moreover, the legend about Miltiades is not only the story of a warrior. He was also related to a famous Athenian family which was known for their good education, success as politicians, and soldiers.

1875 Illustration depicting Miltiades.

1875 Illustration depicting Miltiades. ( Public Domain )

The Mysterious Helmet

Miltiades was born c. 550 BC as a son of Cimon Colalemos, a man appreciated in his society as an Olympic chariot racer. Miltiades was born in Athens, but he said that he was a member of the Aecidae society. He probably died in 498 BC, but due to the writings of historians like Herodotus and Plutarch his legend was not lost. Plutarch also commemorated his daughter Elpinice, who was famous for her confrontations with Pericles.

Bust of Cimon at the beach of Larnaca, Cyprus.

Bust of Cimon at the beach of Larnaca, Cyprus. ( Markus Leupold-Löwenthal/CC BY SA 3.0 )

There are not too many artifacts related to the warrior which can be identified as truly his own. Thus, the helmet unearthed during the works at the temple of Zeus in Olympia is a special find. The helmet of Miltiades was signed, perhaps by him, which makes it even more precious. In the older texts the authors suggest that Miltiades could have brought it to the temple for one of two different reasons.

First, he could have brought the helmet, which was lucky for him in the past, to ask the god for support during the upcoming battle. He could have also offered the helmet to thank the deity for a battle he had won.

Nowadays, the researchers from the Archaeological Museum of Olympia suggest that it must be the same helmet he wore during the famous Battle of Marathon. It seems that after defeating the Persians Miltiades went to the temple and offered Zeus his helmet as a symbol of his gratitude.

Helmet of Miltiades the Younger, Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Helmet of Miltiades the Younger, Archaeological Museum of Olympia. ( Oren Rozen/CC BY SA 3.0 )

A Famous Warrior of His Times

Herodotus could have met some old veterans who knew Miltiades. He described a story which he claimed to have heard his story from real people. He wrote that in September of 490 BC, an army of 600 ships and 20,000 infantry and cavalry tried to conquer the Greek territory. The army of Athenians was much smaller. It apparently only had half the power of the Persians.

The two armies met on the Plain of Marathon, which is located 26 miles (41.84 km) north of Athens. The Greek army was going to go to the death when the general Miltiades ordered the Greek hoplites to form a line equal in length to that of the Persians. He was confident in his army so he convinced his fellow generals to attack the Persians line at a dead run. As a result, only 192 of Miltiades’ soldiers were killed, but his army slaughtered 6,400 Persians.

An Athenian hoplite and Persian warriors

An Athenian hoplite ( Tilemahos Efthimiadis /CC BY SA 2.0 ) and Persian warriors. ( Public Domain )

Herodotus describes a speech of Miltiades to Callimachus, another key leader in the army. It seems that this speech recorded by the Father of Historiography could have taken place in reality. As mentioned, Herodotus could have talked to a Battle of Marathon witness. Miltiades said before the battle:

“With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations. For never since the time that the Athenians became a people were they in so great a danger as now. If they bow their necks beneath the yoke of the Persians, the woes which they will have to suffer...are already determined. If, on the other hand, they fight and overcome, Athens may rise to be the very first city in Greece. We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided: half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men's resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle before any unsoundness shows itself among our citizens,..we are well able to overcome the enemy. On you therefore we depend in this matter, which lies wholly in your own power. You have only to add your vote to my side and your country will be free - and not free only, but the first state in Greece. Or, if you prefer to give your vote to them who would decline the combat, then the reverse will follow.”

The Athenian warriors crash into the Persian army.

The Athenian warriors crash into the Persian army. ( Public Domain )

After these words, they decided to fight. Callimachus didn't come back from the battlefield. His body was found with other dead warriors. However, this speech may be one of the most authentic of the ancient warrior recorded by the writer. Miltiades was from a family of intellectuals, so he knew how to use his words to motivate people. Apart from natural charisma, this talent helped him a lot in life.

Miltiades is Remembered

Miltiades is still an iconic legend. Next to Leonidas, Hector and a few more warriors of ancient Ellada, he is sort of a superstar of ancient Greek legends. Every year, thousands of people read Herodotus’ book discussing the warrior and visit the museum in Olympia where the ancient gift of general Miltiades tells an unspoken story of its famous owner.

"Head of Miltiades". Roman-time copy after Greek original from the 5th century BC.

"Head of Miltiades". Roman-time copy after Greek original from the 5th century BC. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: Main: Relief depicting the Battle of Marathon. ( Military-history.org). Inset: Helmet of Miltiades the Younger, Archaeological Museum of Olympia (public domain )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

A. Krawczuk, Maraton, 1976.
H. Berve, Miltiades, 1937.
W. K. Pritschett, Marathon, 1960.
N.G. Hammon, A History of Greece to 322, 1967.

Comments

Wasn't this great general related to Pericles and Alcibiades?

If Militiades died in 498 BC, how did he command at Marathon which occurred in 490 BC? The Wikipedia article has him dying in 489 BC.

As history ignored is usually history re-learned the hard way, I couldn't help but marvel at Miltiades' words as suiting our own age. 'Half want to engage, half to avoid combat'. We'd do well to follow sage observations of those who've gone before & meet threats to our world by meeting them head-on and not beating around the bush. ( Just an observation and opinion, I love peace as well as any and hate war. )

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