Battle of Marathon

Battle of Marathon
Battle of Marathon

In 490 b.c.e. Greece was threatened by an invading Persian force led by Darius I, who was active in destroying the rebels in the Ionian Islands. Darius landed at Marathon to the northeast of Athens.

He had previously captured the rebels of Eretria on Euboea, and Marathon was near that island. It was also close to the home territory of the Peisistratid tyrant Hippias, who was accompanying the Persians.

The Persians had a clear advantage in cavalry, as horses were scarce in Greece, although their more lightly armed infantry was outmatched by the Athenian citizen troop hoplites, so named for the large hoplon shields they carried. Hoplites maneuvered in deep, well-ordered ranks with their shields, armor, and long spears presenting a formidable foe.

Confronted with this danger, the Athenians debated whether to await siege or march to meet the enemy. Ten generals were selected for command, each leading the troops for a single day in rotation.

This unwieldy system was brought to a close when Callimachus ended an impasse by meeting the Persians and enabling the professional soldier Miltiades to lead the troops, upon which a number of other generals ceded authority. Plataea sent a contingent of 1,000 men to join the 10,000 troops from Athens.

According to Herodotus, a major source of information about the battle, Miltiades dispatched a runner named Pheidippides to Sparta to appeal for assistance. Other traditions state that Pheidippides ran to Athens to announce the result of the battle and immediately died upon completion of his task. The Spartans did not arrive to help.

Miltiades proved to be an able and rather lucky commander in that the Greeks came across the Persians while their cavalry was elsewhere. The Athenians attacked at full speed.

Miltiades strengthened both flanks to permit the Persians to push back and then to find themselves threatened with being surrounded on all sides. The Persians broke and fled, and 6,400 casualties were suffered, some 40 percent of the total force of 15,000 infantry that was fielded.

The Athenians lost just 192 men and celebrated a famous victory as the Persians withdrew from Greece. However, after the death of Darius a few years later, the Persian cause was reinvigorated by his successor, Xerxes I, who planned a greater invasion.

The Battle of Marathon has an important place in the development of the Western intellectual tradition as an event that marked a victory for European democracy against Asian despotism. In reality neither side was as black or white as they have subsequently been portrayed.