Marathon was a wide open plain
in classical Greece
, on the isle of Attica
, that still remains much the same today. It is a very famous site that was the host for the great Battle of Marathon, where the brave Greek polises
) stood their ground against Darius
and defeated his overwhelming forces in 490 BC. Beyond a doubt the most crucial engagement in the First Persian War
, and one of the most amazing battles of the classical period, it still stands as a testament to the bravery
brilliance of the Ancient Greeks.
Over the last century, the nation of Persia had blossomed from its meager beginnings in the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia) into the largest empire known to man at this date. This expansion began with Cyrus in 559 BC, when he conquered his neighbours, Medea and continued outwards. By the time Darius was the Great King of Persia, their empire was bound by Ionia (Asia Minor) and Egypt/Ethiopia in the west, Caucasus to the north, Arabia to the south and northern India to the east. In 492 BC Darius had none of Asia1 left to conquer, and so set his sights upon the rich lands of Europe. He launched a large campaign, marching through Caucasus into the lands of the Scythians. The Scythian campaign was a resounding success, the nomadic horse archers fell to Persian might within the year, and Darius now set out to conquer Greece. In comparison to the empire, Greece was nothing, a dot on the map, and Darius never expected such a crushing defeat as would follow.
Darius won several victories over the Greeks with ease, and by 490 BC controlled all of Northern Greece and many of the islands in the Aegean. Though the war was far from over; in fact, it was only just beginning. Darius now had to face the two toughest Greek states of all - Athens and Sparta. Darius knew of their fearlessness and audacity since day one, when he had sent ambassadors to all the Greek states asking for soil and water (a sign of submission). The Athenians threw the ambassador in jail and left him to rot, while the Spartans threw the ambassador down a well and told him if he wanted soil and water to fetch it himself. Therefore, Darius knew that there would be no easy victory over these two wily customers, but with a force as large as his, he expected to crush the small Greek forces that remained in opposition to him.
The same year Darius sailed from Persia around the coast of the Aegean, landing unchallenged2 with 25,000 of Persia's best troops at Marathon. The Athenians had not been expecting this attack, but they quickly rallied their troops and took up a defensive position in the mountains. There were only 10,000 Athenians and their Plataean allies, and so the Athenians sent Pheidippides, a professional runner, to Sparta in order to request their aid. Pheidippides ran the entire distance and it is from this deed that we get the modern day meaning of Marathon; a long run of endurance. The Athenians waited in their fortified position, while the Persians took up their positions on the plain of Marathon. The Athenians knew they were safe so long as they remained upon the high ground, for the Athenians and Plataeans consisted entirely of hoplites. The Persians, on the other hand, consisted of far more mobile immortals, Persian spearmen, archers and cavalry. They could not risk to engage the Greeks on the mountainside, as the Greeks by far had the advantage there. The Persians would, instead, wait to draw the Greeks into the open plain, where they could exploit their maneuverability fully.
Pheidippides returned empty handed the next day. The Spartans wished to aid the Athenians, but as it was the ninth day of the month, a religious festivial was in process, and the Spartans could not legally fight until the full moon. The Athenians resigned the fact they were alone and began to discuss what to do. Miltiades was the high commander, and it was his plan to assault the Persians waiting on the plain below. Other commanders were against this, as they were so vastly outnumbered, but Miltiades eventually convinced enough of them to win in a vote, and so preperations began to mount an attack. The first problem was how to face the Persians, as the Greek ranks could easily be flanked by the wider Persian force;
| Greeks |
| Persians |
Miltiades solved this problem by taking from the middle of the Greek ranks and adding on to the sides. This widened the line, but made the centre much thinner than the sides;
| | | |
| |_______________________________________| |
| Greeks |
| Persians |
The Greeks waited for their chance to attack, and after waiting a time, the Persians decided the Greeks were not coming down from their high ground, and so decided to march on Athens. Miltiades spotted his chance and made a move, charging the Persians. The Persians recognised the attack and halted the march, turning to meet the Greeks. Seemingly, the move was pure madness; only 10,000 Greeks against 25,000 Persians, and the Greeks had no supporting archers. Not only that, but the Greek hoplites were charging the Persians in an open field - and if there's two things hoplites aren't suited for, it's open warfare and charging.
The Persians met the Greeks with arrogance, expecting the battle to be over quickly; and indeed, it seemed as if it would go that way. The centre of the Persian force consisted of the Sacae, the Persian cavalry elite, and meeting the thinned ranks, they quickly broke the line. The Greeks turned and fled, and the cavalry, including the Persian commander, pursued the routers. Unbeknownst to them, however, the left and right wings were faring far better against the rank and file Persian troops, and soon enough, those Persians were routed themselves. The left and right Greek wings now turned upon the Persian elite;
_/ Fleeing \_
_/ __Greeks__ \_
|Persian Sacae |
_______________ / \ _______________
| | / \ | |
| Right Wing |____/ \____| Left Wing |
| | | |
Thus, the Persian Sacae were caught between the fleeing Greeks, who had now turned to face them once more, and the rest who had come up from behind. Greek losses were minimal, and the Sacae, flanked, outnumbered, and without mobility, were slaughtered. It is of my opinion that this is the inspiration for the much later Cannae Tactic used by Hannibal the Carthaginian at Cannae, but as yet I have not been able to procure any strong evidence for or against this.
The surviving Persians turned tail and fled to the beach. The Greeks persued and harrased them as much as they could, and managed to capture seven Persian ships. The rest of the fleet escaped and began sailing towards Athens. The final toll was 192 Athenians and Plataeans fallen, opposed to 6400 Persians. The Athenians did not waste any time to continue onwards to defend Athens, but that is another battle and another matter.
While there were many other battles to come, Marathon was the most crucial and pivotal for several reasons. Firstly, it reinvigorated the Greek resistance and demoralised the Persian troops. Secondly, it was the first battle where the Greeks had resisted the Persians and been victorious; moreover, they had done so with inferior numbers. Thirdly, it cost the Persians a good portion of their attack force, blunting the following battles that would come, and that would fail. Thus, while not as daring as the stand at Thermopylae, nor as amazing as the battle of Salamis, both in the Second Persian War; the battle of Marathon is an inspiring tale of Greek bravery, and the pivotal engagement in the First Persian War.
1 In the classical period, Asia refers to what we call Asia Minor, or the Middle East.
2 At this period in Greek history, Athens had not taken to the sea, and the rest of Greece had minimal navies. It is due to Persia's unhindered movement by sea that the Greeks learn the value of naval superiority, and improve this by the time of the Second Persian War.
Herodotus The Histories