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.

Battles of the Persian Invasions of Greece
Battles of the
Persian Invasions
of Greece

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.

Regions of Ancient Greece
Regions of
Ancient Greece

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.

The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices, William Shepherd. A look at the Persian Wars and the famous battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea that focuses on how they are portrayed by Herodotus, and including large sections of his text (complete sections for the main events of the wars), as well as extracts from other ancient sources when they provide extra information. Between the extracts Shepherd provides extra context, looks at how convincing Herodotus’s account is, and searches for possible reasons for the less convincing sections (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 May 2015), Battle of Marathon, 12 September 490 BC ,

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