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Battle of Marathon
Oct 02, '21

Battle of Marathon

(Ancient Greek: Μάχη τοῦ Μαραθῶνος, romanized: Machē tou Marathōnos) 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 inflicted a crushing defeat on the more numerous Persians, marking a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars.


First phase

The distance between the two armies at the point of battle had narrowed to "a distance not less than 8 stadia" or about 1,500 meters. Miltiades ordered the two tribes forming the center of the Greek formation, the Leontis tribe led by Themistocles and the Antiochis tribe led by Aristides, to be arranged in the depth of four ranks while the rest of the tribes at their flanks were in ranks of eight. Some modern commentators have suggested this was a deliberate ploy to encourage a double envelopment of the Persian centre. However, this suggests a level of training that the Greeks are thought not to have possessed. There is little evidence for any such tactical thinking in Greek battles until Leuctra in 371 BC. It is therefore possible that this arrangement was made, perhaps at the last moment, so that the Athenian line was as long as the Persian line, and would not therefore be outflanked.

Second phase

When the Athenian line was ready, according to one source, the simple signal to advance was given by Miltiades: "At them". Herodotus implies the Athenians ran the whole distance to the Persian lines, a feat under the weight of hoplite armory generally thought to be physically impossible. More likely, they marched until they reached the limit of the archers' effectiveness, the "beaten zone" (roughly 200 meters), and then broke into a run towards their enemy. Another possibility is that they ran up to the 200 meter-mark in broken ranks, and then reformed for the march into battle from there. Herodotus suggests that this was the first time a Greek army ran into battle in this way; this was probably because it was the first time that a Greek army had faced an enemy composed primarily of missile troops. All this was evidently much to the surprise of the Persians; "... in their minds they charged the Athenians with madness which must be fatal, seeing that they were few and yet were pressing forwards at a run, having neither cavalry nor archers". Indeed, based on their previous experience of the Greeks, the Persians might be excused for this; Herodotus tells us that the Athenians at Marathon were "first to endure looking at Median dress and men wearing it, for up until then just hearing the name of the Medes caused the Hellenes to panic". Passing through the hail of arrows launched by the Persian army, protected for the most part by their armour, the Greek line finally made contact with the enemy army.

Third phase

They fought a long time at Marathon. In the center of the line the foreigners prevailed, where the Persians and Sacae were arrayed. The foreigners prevailed there and broke through in pursuit inland, but on each wing the Athenians and Plataeans prevailed.

— Herodotus VI.113.

Fourth phase

The Athenian wings quickly routed the inferior Persian levies on the flanks, before turning inwards to surround the Persian centre, which had been more successful against the thin Greek centre.

Fifth phase

The battle ended when the Persian centre then broke in panic towards their ships, pursued by the Greeks. Some, unaware of the local terrain, ran towards the swamps where unknown numbers drowned. The Athenians pursued the Persians back to their ships, and managed to capture seven ships, though the majority were able to launch successfully. Herodotus recounts the story that Cynaegirus, brother of the playwright Aeschylus, who was also among the fighters, charged into the sea, grabbed one Persian trireme, and started pulling it towards shore. A member of the crew saw him, cut off his hand, and Cynaegirus died.

Herodotus records that 6,400 Persian bodies were counted on the battlefield, and it is unknown how many more perished in the swamps. He also reported that the Athenians lost 192 men and the Plataeans 11. Among the dead were the war archon Callimachus and the general Stesilaos.

Miltiades - Victor of Marathon

Now, the Persians advanced to Marathon, the part of Athenian territory opposite Eretria and an excellent plain for cavalry fight. Some 10,000 heavily armored Athenians, commanded by Miltiades, occupied the road to Athens and a war of nerves started. The Athenians postponed the engagement, waiting for reinforcements. Attacking was impossible, because the Persian cavalry was superior: no infantry line could cross the plain, because its rear would be exposed to attacks by Persian horsemen. Their opponents, on the other hand, were in a hurry, because they knew that the Athenians expected Spartan reinforcements.

One day, Miltiades received favorable omens and moved his army in position. He allowed the center to be weak but strengthened the wings. At dawn, suddenly, he ordered his heavily armored men to run towards their enemies, about two kilometers away. Herodotus remarks that the Persians considered this charge "suicidal madness". On the wings the Athenians, fighting with better armor and longer spears than their enemies, routed the invaders, and after this first victorious engagement, the wings attacked the Persian center in its rear.

According to Herodotus, the Athenians lost 192 men in the ensuing mêlée, their opponents 6,400. This is exaggerated (192×100/3), but no doubt the invaders suffered severely. A German officer, Hauptmann Eschenburg, who visited the plain in 1884/1885, mentions how a Greek farmer had discovered huge masses of human bones, which seemed to belong to hundreds of people. Eschenburg made a short dig and was able to corroborate the statement. The fact that there was no monument whatsoever, seems to suggest that this mass burial was done in a hurry. (That the Athenians buried the Persians was a pious act, but the Persians must have been shocked when they heard about it: it was their practice to expose their dead to the vultures.)

The Athenians and their allies, the Plataeans, received more decent tombs. The tumulus covering the graves of the Athenians is in the middle of the plain and the tomb of the Plataeans can be seen near the small museum at a village called Vrana. It was unusual that Greek warriors were buried on the battle field; the example of this burial must have been the homeric poem the Iliad, where we read how the heroes of the Trojan War received burials on the battle field.

One mystery remains: how could the Athenians cross the plain without fear for a cavalry attack? Herodotus suggests that their charge was too swift, but contradicts this when he says that the struggle was long drawn out. There is, however, another story about this battle, to be found in the biography of Miltiades by the Roman author Cornelius Nepos (first century BCE) and the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine lexicon. They say that one night, deserters from the Persian army came to the Athenian camp, telling that the cavalry were away.

But why? A possible explanation is that the Persians had become uneasy with the stalemate, had decided to leave the plain to attack the Athenian harbor, and had ordered the cavalry to embark on the transport ships. If this speculation is correct, the Athenians just attacked the Persian rearguard.

Whatever the truth, it is certain that cavalry took part in the final stages of the battle, because at least one Persian horseman was depicted in a contemporary painting representing the battle (in the Athenian building known as Stoa Poikilê). This painting was already lost in 400 CE, but in the Italian town Brescia, a relief can be seen that is based on it.


d. 468 BC

Aristides the Just first came to prominence in Athens during the first Persian invasion and the battle of Marathon. His reputation for honesty preceded him, and, combined with his valor in battle, he was selected to guard and distribute the spoils after the victory at Marathon. He was soon elected archon, and in this position, resisted Themistocles, who promoted increasing Athens naval capability, although the true difference between the two men was in disposition rather than strategy. Aristides was a patriotic statesman, seemingly above self-interest and his obvious virtues were controversial enough to get him ostracized from Athens, only a few years after being elected archon. His exile was short lived, however, as all exiles were called to return to Athens in 490 B.C., when the second Persian invasion was imminent. As soon as he returned, he again distinguished himself with his heroic exploits during the battle of Salamis, and the row between himself and Themistocles was put aside.

In the years after the Persian war, Aristides played a leading role in rebuilding Athens, and the formation of the Delian League. His reputation for honesty was of great importance to Athens, as she made many alliances in the years following the war, with other Greek cities and islands regarding self-defense. Eventually Themistocles, his arch-rival, fell out of favor and was ostracized, allegedly for corruption and for dealing with the Persians, but Aristides continued in good standing until the end of his life, and was buried at state expense.

Key events during the life of Aristides:

Year Event

508 BC Associate and partisan of Cleisthenes and his democratic reforms.

490 BC Commander of his tribe at the battle of Marathon. Fought with distinction.

489 BC Elected Archon.

Resisted Themistocles on many issues.

483 BC Was ostracized from Athens by his enemies.

480 BC Returned from exile and distinguished himself at the battle of Salamis.

479 BC Commanded a division of Athens army at the battle of Plataea.

478 BC Delian League was founded by Aristides and Cimon.

468 BC Aristides dies and is buried at state expense.



Oct 02, '21
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