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Battle of Marathon, 12 September 490 BC

Battle of Marathon, 12 September 490 BC

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Battle of Marathon, 12 September 490 BC

The battle of Marathon (12 September 490 BC) was the decisive battle during Darius I of Persian's campaigns against the Greeks, and saw the Persians defeated by a largely Athenian army at Marathon in north-eastern Attica (Greco-Persian Wars).

The Persian Empire had appeared on the international scene rather rapidly after the conquests of Cyrus II the Great (r.550-530). Amongst his conquests was the Kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor, and with it the Greek cities of Ionian and other parts of the Asian coast. 499 saw the outbreak of the Ionian Revolt, an attempt by those cities to win their independence. Athens and Eretria offered limited support to the rebels, and once the uprising was put down Darius began to prepare to punish the Greeks for their intervention.

Darius's first attempt to punish the Greeks involved sending a land army around the coast of Thrace, commanded by his son-in-law Mardonius, in 492 BC. This expedition restored Persian command of Thrace and gained control over Macedonia, but the fleet was then destroyed in a storm off Mt. Athos, and Mardonius was forced to retreat.

The next Persian attack came in 490. Darius raised a new army, and put it under the command of Datis the Mede and his nephew Artaphernes the Younger (son of Artaphernes the Elder, a key Persian leader during the Ionian Revolt). This time the Persians decided to come by sea. They left Asia Minor at Samos, and crossed the Aegean via Icaria, Naxos and Delos. They then landed on Euboea, where they successfully besieged the eastern city of Carystus and then captured Eretria after a battle reported by Herodotus as lasting for six days. The city was destroyed and the people enslaved.

The Persians rested for a few days, and then moved south, landing at Marathon in the north-east of Attica. This landing point had been suggested by Hippias, the deposed tyrant of Athens, who had been living in exile in Persia. According to Herodotus Hippias had been confident that he would return to Athens after dreaming of his mother, but soon after landing at Marathon he lost a tooth in a sneezing fit, and lost his confidence, claiming that the area covered by the tooth was all of Attica he would ever possess.

Herodotus never gives a figure for the size of the Persian army. He gives a total of 600 triremes for the fleet, and describes the army as large and well equipped. The near contemporary poet Simonides of Ceos (c.556-468 BC) gave a figure of 200,000 men. Later sources tended to increase the number of men, reaching up to 500,000 in Plato. Modern estimates are much lower, giving the Persians around 25,000 infantry, just over 40 infantry per trireme. This wasn't an especially large Persian army, but the cavalry was strong, and the Greeks were still outnumbered by at least two-to-one.

The Athenian army was commanded by ten elected generals, each of whom held command of the army for one day in turn. An eleventh official, the polemarchos, or commander in chief, also had a vote if the ten couldn't agree. In 490 Callimachus was polemarchos, but the most important of the generals was Miltiades the Younger (554-489), a member of a wealthy Athenian family who had been forced to flee from his semi-independent principality in the Chersonese in 493, after taking part in the Ionian Revolt against the Persians.

When the Persians landed at Marathon there were two schools of thought in Athens. One, led by Miltiades, wanted to advance to Marathon with the 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans then available, to prevent the Persians from advancing into open ground where their cavalry would be dangerous. The other wanted to wait at Athens. Miltiades was able to convince the Assembly to vote in favour of an advance to Marathon. As the army moved to face the Persians a runner was sent to Sparta to summon help. The Spartans replied that they couldn't begin to move for six days, until the end of a religious festival.

There was now a debate between those generals who wanted to wait for the Spartans, and those, again led by Miltiades, who wanted to attack at the first suitable moment. Miltiades was able to win over Callimachus, and his casting vote decided the issue. Miltiades's four supporters then gave him their days in command, so he held command for five days out of ten.

The Greeks took up a position on the hills surrounding the Persian beachhead at Marathon, waiting for the right time to attack. Callimachus commanded on the right, with the rest of the army organised into the Athenian tribes, and the Plataeans on the right.

Their chance eventually came when Ionian deserters reported that the Persian cavalry was away, although we don't know why. Miltiades ordered the army to attack. After advancing for a mile the heavy Greek hoplites smashed into the Persian infantry.

The battle was won by an enveloping manoeuvre. The Greeks were strong on their flanks and weak in the centre. The best Persian troops were in their centre, where they held and then began to defeat the Greeks. However on the wings the Greeks were victorious, and they then turned inwards to attack the Persian centre from both sides. The Persians broke and fled back to their ships. The Athenians followed them and captured seven ships, but the rest of the fleet got away.

The enveloping manoeuvre may not have been deliberate - it is possible that it was an accidental result of the Persian formation, with the more easily defeated lighter troops on the flanks and the stronger troops in the centre.

According to Herodotus the Greeks lost 192 dead, the Persians 6,400. This may seem high, but if most of the casualties happened after the flank attacks and during the pursuit then it might not be too far from the truth. Amongst the dead were Callimachus, Stesilaus son of Thresylaus and Cynegeirus son of Euphorion.

The Persians might have been defeated, but their morale clearly hadn't been broken. Once the survivors were back on their ships they sailed around the coast, hoping to reach Athens before the Greek army. The Greeks carried out a forced march back to Athens, and arrived just in time to prevent the Persian attack. After this second setback the Persians abandoned the invasion and sailed back to Asia Minor.

In the following year Miltiades led an expedition against a number of islands that had supported the Persians. He suffered an accidental wound during this failed expedition, and was then put on trial after his return to Athens, found guilty and fined 50 talents, a poor reward for his key contribution to the Greek victory at Marathon. Soon afterwards he died of his wounds.

A number of famous Greeks fought at Marathon. Amongst them was the Aeschylus, the first great Athenian writer of tragic plays, who may have been wounded in the battle. He later went on to fight at Artemisium and Salamis.

The battle later gave rise to the famous race of the same name. According to legend a runner was sent from the battlefield to Athens, a distance of about 25 miles, to report the victory, and died on his arrival. However Herodotus records a rather more impressive run. The messenger, various given as Pheidippides, Phidippides or Philippides, was sent from Athens to Sparta before the battle to call for help and covered 150 miles in two days.

The Persian defeat at Marathon may have helped trigger a revolt that broke out in Egypt after the death of Darius I in 486, by reducing the prestige of Persian arms. It was the first major Greek victory over a Persian army, and was thus a great boost to Greek confidence in future conflicts with the Persians.

Battle of Marathon, 12 September 490 BC - History

Battle of Marathon &mdash September 490 BC

The Battle of Marathon was part of the Greco-Persian Wars , also called the Persian Wars .

Map of the battle of Marathon. Click to enlarge.

Where Was the Battle of Marathon Fought?

At the Plain of Marathon in ancient Greece, approx. 22 miles or 35 kilometers northeast of Athens, on the north-eastern coast of Attica.

Check the map &mdash upper right corner:

The Plain of Marathon lies along the crescent-shaped bay of the same name. The plain is about six miles in length and two miles broad in the center where the space between the mountains and the sea is greatest.

Who Fought Against Whom in the Battle of Marathon?

The Athenians vs. the Persians.

For Athens fought approx. 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans. View Plataea on a map. Athens had no cavalry, no archers, and no military engines. But the guys did have spears.

For Persia fought approx. 15,000 men. These soldiers had horses and archery. The horses weren't of much advantage because the marches were usually flooded in the fall.

The Battle of Marathon &mdash The Fighting

About the battle formation. Athens' right wing was led by Callimachus. Athens' left wing was covered by the Plataeans. Athens' center was led by Themistocles and Aristides.

The Greek idea was to attack first and to cross the distance from the slopes to the Persians as fast as possible in order to beat the Persian cavalry and archers to it.

Greek battle trumpet blows, Athenians sweep down the hills, Persians drive Athens' center back over the plain and up the valley, Athens' wings come down and sandwich the Persian center, Persian army flees to their ships, Greeks pursue and try to set fire to as many galleys as they can get their torches on.

In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto the Second, XC, Lord Byron describes the scene as follows:

The flying Mede, his shaftless broken bow
The fiery Greek, his red pursuing spear
Mountains above, Earth's, Ocean's plain below
Death in the front, Destruction in the rear!
Such was the scene

Actually, it was here at the Persian ships where a lot of Greeks were killed, including the generals Callimachus and Stesilaus, and Aeschylus' brother Cynaegeirus.

However, Athens managed to capture 7 ships. The Persians pushed off the coast and Persian satrap Datis sailed as fast as he could direction Athens, hoping to find the city unprotected.

Greek general Miltiades knew exactly what Datis had in mind and ordered a speedy night march back to the city of Athens. The next morning, the Persian ships arrived at the harbor of Athens and for them waiting were the soldiers the Persians had been fleeing from the previous night.

Datis decided to retreat and the Persian fleet sailed back home.

For the Greeks, who fought a battle and then ran a marathon, it was nap time.

What Was the Outcome of the Battle of Marathon?

Athens won. The Persians had to pack their bags and abandon their first invasion of Greece.

Casualties: Persia lost approx. 6,400 men. Athens lost approx. 192 men.

How many Plataeans lost their lives, we don't know.

How Long Was the Battle of Marathon Fought?

The entire encounter was over after only one afternoon / early evening.

The Greek land forces were headed by 10 generals. One of them was General Miltiades , also called Miltiades the Younger.

Athens' General Callimachus was a noble and the elected War-Ruler of the year 490 BC, which meant he was the leader of the 10 generals, the polemarchos, or the supreme military commander.

When the Greeks were trying to decide whether or not to strike first, the assembled generals voted 50/50. It was Callimachus' vote that tipped the scales, thus Athens attacked first and brought home a victory. Unfortunately for Callimachus, he fell in this battle. (The Persians didn't attack first because there was a chance of a bloodless conquest. Athens being scared shitless was one of the reasons. See "Background of the battle of Marathon," if you scroll down a bit.)

Greek General Aristides later led Athens at the Battle of Plataea .

After the Battle of Marathon, Greek General Themistocles went on to become the hero of the Battle of Salamis .

Greek General Stesilaus was killed in this battle.

Any celebrities fighting as well?

Yes, Greek's famous King of Tragedy, Aeschylus fought as well as his brother Cynaegeirus.

Aeschylus was wounded. His brother lost first his hands and then his life.

The Persians were led by a joint command of their satraps Datis and Artaphernes. What in the world is a satrap?

Artaphernes was the son of the satrap of Sardis, who in turn was a nephew of Darius I the king.

What Was the Historic Background of the Battle of Marathon?

King Darius I the Great and his Persian army were ready to incorporate Athens into the Persian Empire .

On their way towards Athens, also in the year 490 BC, they had already sacked Eretria, a town on the island of Euboea, which was a former ally of Athens. Up to the Battle of Marathon, the Medes and the Persians rolled with the reputation of being invincible.

Also travelling with the Persians was Hippias , an exiled tyrant of Athens who had ruled the city from 528 to 510 BC. Before Hippias, it was Hippias' father Pisistratus who ran the outfit. Hippias, no doubt toying with the thought of settling unfinished business, was the one who came up with the idea of landing at Marathon.

When the Persians landed at Marathon, desperate Athens asked Sparta for help. The Spartans replied "Not Now. Maybe Later." as they were busy observing important religious ceremonies at the time. Athens had a good swear, prepared for battle, and tried to look as fearless as possible.

The only military support for Athens came from Plataea. View Plataea on a map , Athens's loyal friend. Plataea hosted their own home game against the Persians a year later. See Battle of Plataea .

Did the Spartans Ever Arrive?

After having properly finished their religious celebrations, 2,000 spearmen from Sparta arrived AFTER the battle had been fought. They had marched for 3 days from Sparta to Marathon, took some pictures of the dead bodies on the battlefield, and went back home.

Check out their route on the map. Look for Lacedaemonia, which is the ancient name for Sparta, pretty much center of the map (b - B/C). Athens is up there further to the right in Attica, across the island of Salamis, (b - D).

It is a 150 miles or 245 kilometers journey from Sparta to Marathon. Today and with your car, you can make in 3 hours.

Legend has it that a messenger was sent from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of the victory. Public transportation was a bitch and the poor guy ran the entire 25 miles which is 40 kilometers. He arrived in Athens, announced the good news, collapsed, and died of exhaustion.

For the organizers of the first modern Olympic Games (held in Athens in 1896), it only made sense to include this insanity as part of the event. Twenty-four-year-old Spyridon Louis from Greece fetched the gold medal.


By the way, the first recorded Olympic Games , maybe the first Olympic Games ever, were held in the year 776 BC.

Back to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.

Who in the World Was Pheidippides?

Pheidippides was, according to Herodotus , a professional runner who was sent from Athens to Sparta before the Battle of Marathon took place in order to request reinforcement from the Spartan army.

The entire thing got mixed up, as tales do, and Pheidippides was all of a sudden the name of the guy who ran from Marathon to Athens after the battle and expired.

Which Historian Tells Us About the Battle of Marathon?

Among others, Herodotus , who lived 484-425 BC, tells us much about it and here is his report. Herodotus also apparently interviewed Epizelus, or Epizelos, a veteran of Marathon. Check it out.

Thucydides , who lived 460-400 BC, tells us about the battle. Thucydides was also a big fan of Greek general Themistocles. - See here.

Other reporting historians lived a long time after the event. Plutarch , who lived 46-119 AD, wrote on the battle and so did Justin , aka Marcus Junianus Justinus, who lived in the 3rd century AD - lookie here .

And here is Eddie Izzard's sum up:

The Battle of Marathon &mdash Trivia

The Battle of Marathon featured the biggest difference in comparative territorial resources of the opponents involved. As Sparta didn't get their act together, Athens and Plataea, who represented Attica, fought the delegation representing the Persian Empire .

On the map below, you will find Attica in the upper left corner. It is not labeled though. Look for the tiny stretch of land around the words "Marathon" and "Athens."

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.

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.

September 12, 490 BCE: Remembering The Battle of Marathon On The 2,506th Anniversary

Although astronomers have tried to move the date a full month earlier--to August 12--Prof. Rose noted that, "precise dating is impossible, but the battle was fought around the time of the full moon in either August or September." The Athenians commemorated the victory on 6 Boedromion (Plut. Cam. 19 Mor. 349F), a day that would normally fall in our September.

Ancient calendars and discrepancies within the classical sources make a definitive timeline difficult, but the arguments over the dates do demonstrate the import of astronomy to ancient civilizations. What I have tried to do below is give the best estimate of the timeline that can be made, but please remember that this is an educated conjecture.

The Persian King Darius had sent the generals Hippias, Datis and Artaphernes to defeat the Greek city states that had earlier supported the Greek uprisings in the area of Ionia in modern-day Turkey. The Persians had about 20,000-30,000 troops, versus the Athenians and Plataeans, who had about 10,000 in their phalanx, notably made up of both citizen-soldiers and slaves.

Ancient Sources:

We have no first-hand account of the battle (although the tragedian Aeschylus did notably fight in it), but we do have the words of the historian Herodotus (Histories 6.94-140), an Ionian Greek that published the account as many as 50 years after the Battle of Marathon occurred. Other historical sources include Cornelius Nepos, a historian from Gaul who died during the reign of Augustus, and a poet named Lucian (2nd century CE). We also have the Greek biographer Plutarch, who lived in the early imperial period (c.50-120 CE), and the 10th century Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda.

Battle Timeline:

September 2: The Athenian runner-courier-soldier Pheidippides is sent to Sparta from Athens--a distance of about 150 miles.

September 3: Pheidippides likely reaches Sparta and entreats the Lacedaemonians to help Athens, lest the city be enslaved to Persia. Sparta refuses to do so (according to religious laws for the month of Karneios or maybe just because they didn't want to) until the full moon. Pheidippides presumably then runs back to Athens with the message that Sparta will send troops once the full moon allows them to, in six days.

September 4-5: Possible return day of Pheidippides. Athenian troops march to Marathon to wait for the full moon--and to stall until Spartan help can arrive. In the meantime, troops from Plataea arrive to help. Phalanx battles are best fought on a flat plain--as Marathon had--since the formation relies on brute, collective pushing. This played to the strength of the Greek forces, but the site had been determined largely by the Athenian tyrant Hippias, who had told the Persians the plain would be a good place for their cavalry.

September 10: Sparta begins the march for Marathon

September 12: Most common date for the battle itself, at least since August Boeckh's 1855 reconstruction of the events.

ca.6:00-6:30 a.m.: Just before sunrise, a favorable omen is received by Miltiades, the Athenian commander, and he takes this as a sign to start the battle.

On the Persian side, some of the Persian infantry and much of their cavalry may have been divided at this point and then sent on ships towards Phaleron. As Prof. Rose points out, Herodotus says that the Persians hoped “to arrive at the city of Athens before the Athenians could march there." This means that only about half the Persian troops remained at Marathon and thus the Athenians needed to strike while the iron was hot and the Persian numbers were decreased.

6:30 a.m.: Athenian troops initially rush in a phalanx double-march for 8 stades (1.7 km) at the Persian forces, working hard to avoid being hit by the famed Persian archers raining arrows down.

6:30-10:00 a.m.: The battle lasted about three to four hours. The center of the phalanx was kept weak, so that as the Persian forces pushed through the center, the wings of the Greeks could wrap themselves around the troops and encompass them. The Persians are defeated and suffer 6,400 casualties. Rose notes that "According to Herodotus (6.117), less than 200 Greeks lost their lives at Marathon. They were afforded the signal honor of burial on the field of battle. The Athens Classic Marathon course loops around the burial mound built over their mass grave."

10:00 a.m.-unknown: A signal is sent to the remaining Persian ships, telling them to alert the forces at Phaleron of the outcome of the battle. In response, an Athenian runner may have been dispatched to Athens, 26 miles away, to inform the leadership there of the Greek victory. Accounts conflict as to who this runner was. It may have been a man named Philippides [Φιλιππίδης] (according to the rather weak source Lucian, Pro Lapsu inter Salutandum , 3 ), whom Lucian may be confusing with the aforementioned Pheidippides. However, Plutarch notes that there was a different runner, " Eucles who ran in full armour, hot from the battle and, bursting in at the doors of the first men of the State, could only say, "Hail! we are victorious!" ( De gloria Atheniensium, 3). If it was Pheidippides, he would have run around 326 miles in the span of nine days and fought in battle--and thus it seems unlikely he was the runner sent.

Late morning to early afternoon: A small group of Athenians stays under the command of Aristides. The rest of the Athenians make the seven hour march back to Athens. Plutarch says (in agreement with Herodotus) that, “When the Athenians had routed the Barbarians [Persians] and driven them aboard their ships, and saw that they were sailing away, not toward the islands, but into the gulf toward Attica under compulsion of wind and wave, then they were afraid lest the enemy find Athens empty of defenders, and so they hastened homeward with nine tribes, and reached the city that very day" (Arist. 5). It has been alternately suggested that the march happened the next day, but it seems most probable that the Athenians marched there as soon as possible after the battle that day and then were able to head off the Persians, whose remaining forces ultimately chose to sail back home when it became clear they could not take the city.

September 13: The Spartans reach the plain at Marathon--one day too late, but when they do show up, they agree that the victory of the Athenians and Plataeans was truly exceptional.

Two burial mounds were eventually constructed on the plain, one for the deceased Athenians (called "the Soros") and another one, further to the west, for the Plataeans. A number of epigrams were written to commemorate the victory, which ultimately showed the Greeks that the Persians could be defeated a memory they would need just a few years later, when the Persians returned. The travel writer Pausanias later noted, " On the plain is the grave of the Athenians, and upon it are slabs giving the names of the killed according to their tribes and there is another grave for the Boeotian Plataeans and for the slaves, for slaves fought then for the first time by the side of their masters" (1.32.3).

1879: Robert Browning writes the poem "Pheidippides" commemorating the runner as the one who ran to Athens from Marathon. This was a romantic and widely-read poem that inspired the later Olympic race.

March 10, 1896: The first modern Marathon race is run from Marathon to Athens. Charilaos Vasilakos wins. He completed the course in 3 hours and 18 min.

This Day in History: September 12, 490 B.C: Battle of Marathon, Greece

On this day in the year 490 B.C., on a beach just outside of the present-day Greek town of Marathon a coalition of Greek forces defeated a much larger force of invading Persians, kicking off an era of Greek democracy that helped to shape much of the institutions that we live under today.

In the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. democracy in the Greek world was beginning to evolve. Athens was one of the first movers in adopting a democratic system of government and from 594 until 510 B.C. the city-state fought over whether the system would stay in place or whether it would return to the autocratic dictatorships of its past. By 510 B.C. the Athenian Democratic experiment was fully underway and many other Greek city states would soon begin to declare themselves democracies.

A major example of this occurred during the Ionian Revolt of 499 to 493 B.C. During this time a number of Persian territories in the Aegean Sea revolted. These territories included Ionia, Aeolis, Doris, Caria Athens, Eretria, Cyprus and a number of them ultimately declared themselves democracies in the process.

In doing so, they requested the support of Athens, whose young decmocratic system they had emulated. Ultimately, by 493 B.C., the Persian Empire , led by Darius the Great , would be successful in putting down the revolt but the Athenian’s actions in support of it was another matter for the Persians to deal with. Prior to the battle the Persians would offer the Greek cities an opportunity to submit to their authority by making their signature demand for “earth and water”. While many states knelt to the Persian’s demand, Athens and Sparta refused to, and this refusal would ultimately set the stage for the Battle of Marathon just three years later and the better known Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

Following the Athenian and Spartan’s refusal to submit to Persian rule, King Darius the Great sent an army of 25,000 to invade the Greek mainland. This force chose to land at Marathon. Because the Persian decided to sail down the Greek coast prior to landing, the Greek army, consisting of roughly 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans, was able to march to block the Persian’s exits from the beach at Marathon.

During this period of time a young messenger named Pheidippides had been sent to Sparta to request their aid in the battle against the Persians. When he arrived the Spartans were engaged in a tribal festival called Carneia and they could not provide the Athenian’s aid for at least 10 days.

Ultimately, the battle ensued without the Spartans and resulted in an Athenian and Plataean victory over the vastly larger Persian army. The accounts of the battle differ somewhat but ultimately the larger Persian force was taken by surprise and were unable to mobilize their cavalry in defense. The victory was an enormous accomplishment for the newly formed democracy and it helped to bolster the confidence of the Athenians and other Greeks for centuries to come. Had it not been for their success in this decisive battle of the Greco-Persian wars, it is difficult to imagine what the world would look like today.

Following the battle, legend has it that the messenger Pheidippides sprinted roughly 25 miles from the battlefield to Athens to report the news of the victory to the people there, and ultimately dying on the spot where he presented the news. This legend was ultimately the inspiration for the modern marathon race in which athletes run a stretch of roughly the same distance. The modern world record for the marathon for men is held by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge 2:01:39 (2018) and for women is held by Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei 2:14:04 (2019).

The next time you think or have a discussion about democratic / republican forms of government , be sure to take appreciation of the Battle of Marathon as well as all of the people who have sacrificed to refine the concept of self governance over thousands of years so that we can enjoy the freedoms that we do today.

Battle of Marathon, 12 September 490 BC - History

T he battle of Marathon is one of history's most famous military engagements. It is also one of the earliest recorded battles. Their victory over the Persian invaders gave the fledgling Greek city states confidence in their ability to defend themselves and belief in their continued existence. The battle is therefore considered a defining moment in the development of European culture.

In September of 490 BC a Persian armada of 600 ships disgorged an invasion force of approximately 20,000 infantry and cavalry on Greek soil just north of Athens. Their mission was to crush the Greek states in retaliation for their support of their Ionian cousins who had revolted against Persian rule.

Undaunted by the numerical superiority of the invaders, Athens mobilized 10,000 hoplite warriors to defend their territory. The two armies met on the Plain of Marathon twenty-six miles north of Athens. The flat battlefield surrounded by hills and sea was ideal for the Persian cavalry. Surveying the advantage that the terrain and size of their force gave to the Persians, the Greek generals hesitated.

One of the Greek generals - Miltiades - made a passionate plea for boldness and convinced his fellow generals to attack the Persians. Miltiades ordered the Greek hoplites to form a line equal in length to that of the Persians. Then - in an act that his enemy believed to be complete madness - he ordered his Greek warriors to attack the Persian line at a dead run. In the ensuing melee, the middle of the Greek line weakened and gave way, but the flanks were able to engulf and slaughter the trapped Persians. An estimated 6,400 Persians were slaughtered while only 192 Greeks were killed.

The remaining Persians escaped on their ships and made an attempt to attack what they thought was an undefended Athens. However, the Greek warriors made a forced march back to Athens and arrived in time to thwart the Persians.

"With you it rests, Callimachus" - Indecision before battle

Known as the "Father of History", Herodotus wrote his description of the battle a few years after it occurred. We join his account as the Athenians arrive at the battleground and are joined by a force of approximately 1000 of their Plataean allies. The Greek military leaders split on whether they should immediately attack the invaders or wait for reinforcements:

"The Athenians were drawn up in order of battle in a sacred close belonging to Heracles, when they were joined by the Plataeans, who came in full force to their aid.

The Athenian generals were divided in their opinions. Some advised not to risk a battle, because they were too few to engage such a host as that of the Persians. Others were for fighting at once. Among these last was Miltiades. He therefore, seeing that opinions were thus divided, and that the less worthy counsel appeared likely to prevail, resolved to go to the polemarch [an honored dignitary of Athens] , and have a conference with him. For the man on whom the lot fell to be polemarch at Athens was entitled to give his vote with the ten generals, since anciently the Athenians allowed him an equal right of voting with them. The polemarch at this juncture was Callimachus of Aphidnre to him therefore Miltiades went, and said:

'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.'

Miltiades by these words gained Callimachus and the addition of the polemarch's vote caused the decision to be in favor of fighting.'"

Miltiades arranges the Greek line of battle so that it stretches the length of the opposing, and far superior, Persian army. Then, much to the surprise of the Persians, he orders the Greek warriors to charge headlong into the enemy line.

"The Athenians. charged the barbarians at a run. Now the distance between the two armies was little short of eight furlongs [approximately a mile] The Persians, therefore, when they saw the Greeks coming on at speed, made ready to receive them, although it seemed to them that the Athenians were bereft of their senses, and bent upon their own destruction for they saw a mere handful of men coming on at a run without either horsemen or archers.

Such was the opinion of the barbarians but the Athenians in close array fell upon them, and fought in a manner worthy of being recorded. They were the first of the Greeks, so far as I know, who introduced the custom of charging the enemy at a run, and they were likewise the first who dared to look upon the Persian garb, and to face men clad in that fashion. Until this time the very name of the Persians had been a terror to the Greeks to hear.

The two armies fought together on the plain of Marathon for a length of time and in the mid-battle the barbarians were victorious, and broke and pursued the Greeks into the inner country but on the two wings the Athenians and the Plataeans defeated the enemy . Having so done, they suffered the routed barbarians to fly at their ease, and joining the two wings in one, fell upon those who had broken their own center, and fought and conquered them. These likewise fled, and now the Athenians hung upon the runaways and cut them down, chasing them all the way to the shore, on reaching which they laid hold of the ships and called aloud for fire."

The Persians Attack Athens

Miltiades arranges the Greek line of battle so that it stretches the length of the opposing, and far superior, Persian army. Then, much to the surprise of the Persians, he orders the Greek warriors to charge headlong into the enemy line.

". the Athenians secured in this way seven of the vessels while with the remainder the barbarians pushed off, and taking aboard their Eretrian prisoners from the island where they had left them, doubled Cape Sunium, hoping to reach Athens before the return of the Athenians.

The Persians accordingly sailed round Sunium. But the Athenians with all possible speed marched away to the defense of their city, and succeeded in reaching Athens before the appearance of the barbarians. The barbarian fleet arrived, and lay to off Phalerum, which was at that time the haven of Athens but after resting awhile upon their oars, they departed and sailed away to Asia."

Herodotus's account appears in: Davis, William Sterns, Readings in Ancient History (1912) Creasy, Edward, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1969).


In the wake of the Ionian Revolt (499 BC-494 BC), the emperor of the Persian Empire, Darius I, dispatched an army to Greece to punish those city-states that had aided the rebels. Led by Mardonius, this force succeeded in subjugating Thrace and Macedonia in 492 BC. Moving south towards Greece, Mardonius' fleet was wrecked off Cape Athos during a massive storm. Losing 300 ships and 20,000 men in the disaster, Mardonius elected to withdraw back towards Asia.

Displeased with Mardonius' failure, Darius began planning a second expedition for 490 BC after learning of political instability in Athens. Conceived as a purely maritime enterprise, Darius assigned command of the expedition to the Median admiral Datis and the son of the satrap of Sardis, Artaphernes. Sailing with orders to attack Eretria and Athens, the fleet succeeded in sacking and burning their first objective.

Moving south, the Persians landed near Marathon, approximately 25 miles north of Athens. Responding to the impending crisis, Athens raised around 9,000 hoplites and dispatched them to Marathon where they blocked the exits from the nearby plain and prevented the enemy from moving inland. They were joined by 1,000 Plataeans and assistance was requested from Sparta.

This was not forthcoming as the Athenian messenger had arrived during the festival of Carneia, a sacred time of peace. As a result, the Spartan army was unwilling to march north until the next full moon which was over a week away. Left to fend for themselves, the Athenian and Plataeans continued to prepare for battle. Encamping on the edge of the Plain of Marathon, they faced a Persian force numbering between 20-60,000.

Battle of Marathon

  • Conflict: Persian Wars
  • Date: August or September 12, 490 BC
  • Armies and Commanders:
  • Greeks
  • Callimachus
  • Arimnestus
  • approx. 8,000-10,000 men
  • Persians
  • Datis
  • Artaphernes
  • 20,000-60,000 men

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.

‘Who Really Won the Battle of Marathon?’ Book Review

In this reappraisal of one of history’s most decisive battles Greek scholars Constantinos Lagos and Fotis Karyanos have done admirable research. Almost a third of the book is taken up by the bibliography and notes, while the illustrations are impressive.

Herodotus devoted only a dozen or so lines to the pivotal events that September 490 BC—after all, he was a cultural rather than military historian. Yet the resulting paucity of firsthand information hardly inhibited subsequent writers from placing their own interpretation on events that day.

The six miles of gently curving shore at Marathon, on the east coast of mainland Greece, is where the Persian fleet landed. As to the Persian army—of which Herodotus only writes the “foot soldiers were many and well supplied”—its size has occasioned much conjecture across the centuries. Authors Lagos and Karyanos suggest between 20,000 and 25,000 men, facing a similar number of Athenians and Plataeans.

Thanks to a wealth of new information, it is known the Persians controlled the greater part of the plain, while the Greeks occupied the slopes of Mount Agrieliki. The mount remains largely untouched, the authors noting that “a visitor is able to go where one of the brightest pages of world history was written 2,500 years ago.”

If the Greeks were to triumph, it was essential they first neutralize the formidable Persian cavalry. This they accomplished by luring the horsemen onto marshland. Though by late summer the marsh looks to be dry land, the Persian horses churned up the ground, dissipating the charge, before coming under attack by Greek archers. The Persian dead numbered some 6,400, and the Athenian dead just 192.

The legendary runner who carried news of the battle to Athens at the close of that fateful day was most likely named Pheidippides, whom Herodotus mentions only as a “day-runner.” According to Plutarch and Lucian, he spoke the words, “Joy, we win!” and promptly collapsed, his feat later commemorated by the Greek marathon of athletic events.

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