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Greek troops rushing forward at the Battle of Marathon. Source: पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain.

The Battle That Inspired The Marathon

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The Battle of Marathon was a pivotal battle in the Graeco-Persian Wars. This battle took place in August or September 490 BC. During the battle, the Athenians and their Plataean allies successfully repelled the invading Persians, despite being outnumbered. The victory of the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon was significant as it brought an end to the first Persian invasion of Greece.

Additionally, the Persians did not return to Greece until a decade later. It is also thanks to this ancient battle that we have the marathon today. This sporting event is a modern invention that was inspired by an amazing feat performed by one of the Athenian soldiers who participated in the battle.

Preamble to the Battle of Marathon

The Graeco-Persian Wars broke out in 492 BC and the first Persian invasion of Greece was launched that year by Darius I. A year before that, the Ionian Revolt, which began in 499 BC, was finally crushed by the Persians. This was a revolt by the Greek colonies in Asia Minor that were under Persian rule.

The Greek rebels sought aid from mainland Greece and Athens, and Eretria responded by sending them a small fleet of ships. Thus, the involvement of these two city states in the Ionian Revolt was used by the Persians to justify their invasion of Greece once the revolt was put down. According to Herodotus, “These places [Athens and Eretria] were the ostensible targets of the expedition, but in fact the Persians intended to conquer as many Greek towns and cities as they could”.

The Persian expedition against the Greeks involved a combined land and sea force and overall command was given to Mardonius, the son of Gobryas, “a young man who had recently married Darius’ daughter Artozostra”. Using their fleet, the Persians conquered the island of Thasos, while the land army subdued the Macedonians. After this, however, the Persians experienced some setbacks.

Persian warriors, possibly ‘Immortals’, a frieze in Darius's palace at Susa. (Jastrow / Public Domain)

From Thasos, the Persian fleet sailed westwards to the mainland where it hugged the coast and sailed up to Acanthus. As the ships set out to round the headland at Athos they were caught in a storm and many were destroyed. Herodotus reported that about 300 ships were destroyed and over 20,000 men lost their lives.

The ancient historian even spares a few lines to report the ways in which the shipwrecked men lost their lives, “The men died in various ways: some were seized by the sharks that infest the sea around Mont Athos, others were dashed onto the rocks, others drowned because they did not know how to swim, and others died of cold”. The Persian land army did not fare so well either.

According to Herodotus, while the Persians were encamped in Macedonia the Brygi, a Thracian tribe, launched a night attack against them. Many men were killed and Mardonius himself was wounded. The Persians responded by subduing the Brygi. Once this was accomplished, however, Mardonius pulled his forces back to Asia thus bringing the Persian expedition of 492 BC to an end.

In the following year, Darius sent heralds throughout Greece with orders to “demand earth and water for the king”. This was meant to see if the Greeks would submit to the Persians or resist them. At the same time, instructions were sent to the coastal states which were already part of the Achaemenid Empire to build long ships and transport ships for horses, so as to prepare for another invasion.

Many of the Greeks submitted to Darius’ demands, including one of Athens’ rivals, Aegina. The Athenians accused the Aeginetans of being traitors of Greece and used it as a pretext to start a war with them. While this war was being fought, Darius’ forces were ready.

Answer of the Athenian Aristides to the ambassadors of Mardonius: "As long as the sun holds to its present course, we shall never come to terms with Xerxes”. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Mardonius was relieved of his command and two new commanders, “a Mede called Datis and Artaphrenes, the son of Artaphrenes, who was Darius’ nephew” were appointed. Their mission, according to Herodotus, was to “reduce Athens and Eretria to slavery and to bring the captives before him [Darius]”.

Unlike the previous expedition, the land and sea forces were not separated. Instead, it was an amphibious operation and the land forces boarded the ships at Cilicia. Herodotus reported that a fleet of 600 triremes was sent against the Greeks.

This fleet first sailed to the island of Samos, off the Ionian coast, and thence across the Aegean Sea by sailing from island to island. This was different from the route taken by Mardonius whose fleet sailed along the Ionian coast to the Hellespont, so as to join up with the land army at Thrace.

The first place that Datis and Artaphrenes planned to attack was the island of Naxos. Instead of staying to fight the islanders fled into the hills. The Persians razed the sanctuaries and the town to the ground and enslaved anyone they caught. The next stop for the Persians was the neighboring island of Delos.

The Delians, having heard of the Persian approach, fled to another island, Tenos. Herodotus reported that Datis had no intention of destroying the island. Instead, after finding out where the Delians were hiding the commander sent a herald to inform them that he would harm neither the island nor its inhabitants and urged them to return to their homes. Before leaving the island, Datis “heaped up 300 talents of frankincense on the altar and burnt it as an offering. Datis then sailed away with his army”.

The next target of the Persian invaders was Eretria. When the Eretrians received news of the Persian fleet they requested for assistance from Athens and received it. Unfortunately, the Eretrians were divided into two factions, those who wanted to abandon the city, and to flee to the Euboean hills on the one hand, and those who wanted to surrender the city to the Persians on the other.

One of the Eretrian leaders, Aeschines the son of Nothon, saw that there was no way to save the city, explained the situation to the Athenians who arrived and begged them to leave. The Athenians heeded Aeschines’ advice and left Eretria, thus saving themselves. In the meantime, the Eretrians resolved not to abandon their city and prepared to be besieged.

After several days of intense fighting, the city fell to the Persians through treachery. The city was plundered, burnt to the ground, and the population reduced to slavery. A few days after the destruction of Eretria, the Persians left for Attica, and were confident that they would be able to deal with the Athenians easily too.

The Persians Head for Marathon

Following the advice of Hippias, the son of Pisistratus (the former tyrant of Athens), the Persians chose to land at Marathon, as it had “terrain that was admirably suited to cavalry maneuvers” and was close to Eretria. Herodotus’ claim of the former, however, has been contradicted by a scholium (a marginal comment made by an ancient commentator) found in Plato’s Menexenus, which states that the terrain of Marathon was “rugged, unsuitable for horses, full of mud, swamps and lakes”.

A picture reconstructing the beached Persian ships at Marathon before the battle. (Dorieo / Public Domain)

Instead, it is speculated that the site, being a relatively poorer region of Attica, was more sympathetic towards Hippias, hence the former tyrant’s choice for the Persian landing. When they heard of the Persians’ arrival the Athenians marched to Marathon as well.

Before leaving for Marathon, however, the Athenian commanders dispatched a professional courier by the name of Philippides to Sparta in order to request their aid during the upcoming battle with the Persians. Although the Spartans agreed to provide assistance to the Athenians, they “could not do so straight away, because there was a law they were reluctant to break. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said that they would not send an army into the field then or until the moon was full”.

From this passage, scholars were able to determine the date of the Battle of Marathon, i.e. on the 12th either of August or September 490 BC in the Julian calendar. In any case, the Spartans did not make it to the Battle of Marathon and the only Greeks who came to Athens’ aid were the Plataeans.

Meanwhile, the Athenian commanders were divided as to how to proceed. On the one hand, there were those who wished to avoid fighting, arguing that they were outnumbered by the Persians. On the other, there were those in favor of engaging the enemy. Both sides were supported by five commanders and it was up to the War Archon, Callimachus of Aphidnae, to cast the deciding vote.

In Herodotus’ account, a rousing speech was made, at the mouth of Miltiades, by one of the commanders who favored engaging the Persians, which won Callimachus over. The Athenians, however, did not engage the Persians immediately.

Herodotus reported that “when each of the commanders who had inclined towards engaging the enemy held the presidency of the board of commanders for the day, he stood down in favor of Miltiades. While accepting the post each time, Miltiades waited until the presidency was properly his before giving battle.” Although not reported by Herodotus, other ancient historians wrote that on the day of battle, the Athenians learned that the Persian cavalry was away and therefore seized the opportunity to attack the invaders.

The Day of the Battle of Marathon

Herodotus reported that the right wing of the army was under the command of the War Archon, which was in accordance with Athenian customs at that time, while the Plataeans were placed on the left. Between the two, the Athenian tribes were arranged one after another in their usual order. Herodotus also tells his readers that the Athenian army was extended over the same length as the Persian army.

Although the center was only a few ranks deep and therefore the weakest, the two wings were at full strength. After the battle lines were drawn and favorable omens obtained from the sacrifices, the Athenians attacked by charging the Persians at a run. This was a remarkable feat and Herodotus asserted that “They were the first Greeks known to charge enemy forces at a run, and the first to endure the sight of Persian dress and the men wearing it”.

Initial disposition of forces at Battle of Marathon. (Master Thief Garrett~commonswiki / GNU FDL)

During the battle, the Athenian center was broken by the Persians, who pursued them inland. The left and right wings of the Athenians, however, were victorious in their battle against their respective opponents. Therefore, they combined into a single fighting unit and attacked the Persians who had broken through the center.

Map showing the armies' main movements during the Battle of Marathon. (Warden / GNU FDL)

The Persians were defeated and retreated back to their ships anchored along the coast. The Athenians gave chase and killed any Persian they were able to overtake. In addition, seven Persian ships were captured by the Athenians. Herodotus does not give the strength of the Athenian and Persian armies that fought at the Battle of Marathon, but reports that 6,400 Persian soldiers were killed, while the Athenians lost 192 men.

The Soros, a burial mound to the fallen of the Battle of Marathon. (Jacopo Werther / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Although the Athenians won the Battle of Marathon, the Persian army had not been completely defeated and their fleet was still a threat to Athens. In fact, following the defeat at Marathon the Persian fleet began to sail around Cape Sounion, hoping to arrive at Athens before the army returned.

According to Herodotus, “The Athenians raced back as quickly as possible to defend the city, which they managed to reach before the Persians got there…. The invaders hove to off Phalerum, which was Athens’ naval harbor in those days, but then after riding at anchor there for a while they sailed back to Asia.” The Persians didn’t returned to Greece until 10 years later.

The First Marathon Runner

Finally, a popular legend that has survived till this day is that it was a messenger, Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon back to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians. Right after he delivered his message, Pheidippides died of exhaustion. Although the story is commonly attributed to Herodotus, it is not actually found in his writings.

Painting of Pheidippides as he gave word of the Greek victory over Persia at the Battle of Marathon to the people of Athens. (Themadchopper / Public Domain)

Herodotus does report that a herald by the name of Philippides was sent by the Athenians to seek aid from the Spartans and the two stories might have been conflated. In any case, the story inspired the creation of the marathon. In 1896, the first modern Olympics was held in Athens and the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Coubertin, organized the first official marathon.

This race started from the Marathon Bridge to the Olympic Stadium in Athens, a distance of about 24.85 miles (40 kilometers) and was won by Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker, who finished the race in 2 hours 58 minutes. During the 1908 Olympics, which was held in London, the marathon began at the lawn of Windsor Castle and finished in front of the royal box at White City Stadium. The total distance between the two points was 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers). Although this would become the standard distance for future marathons it was only formally adopted in 1921.

Top image: Greek troops rushing forward at the Battle of Marathon. Source: पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain.

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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