The battle that charged everything

Prelude to the Battle of Marathon


The battle that charged everything
by Nabil Rastani

By the reign of Darius I of Persia (522-486BC) the Persian Empire was colossal stretching from Asia Minor and Thrace in the west, to India in the east. In the province of Ionia in western Asia Minor, Greeks were subjected by the Persians since the reign of Cyrus the Great. The ruler of the city of Miletus, Aristagoras decided to rebel against Darius and Persian rule. He led an army on a rampage throughout the coast of the Aegean, attacking the major Persian naval bases. Soon however Darius began to prepare an army to strike back against the Greek rebellion.

After hearing this, Aristagoras knew that his petty army would not stand up to the might of the Persian Empire. Aristagoras appealed to the Spartan king, Cleomenes I, to help them throw off the Persian yoke. He praised the quality of the Spartan warriors, and argued that a pre-emptive invasion of Persia would be easy. He claimed that the Persians would be easy to defeat, as they fought in “trousers and turbans,” clearly not a sign of good warriors. However Aristagoras attempt failed and Cleomenes of Sparta left Aristagoras without support.

Aristagoras next went to Athens, where he made a convincing speech, promising “everything that came into his head, until at last he succeeded.” This rather desperate speech won over the aid of the Athenians and they sent naval ships to the Ionians aid. Aristagoras’ brother Charopinus was put in charge of the Ionian and Athenian contingent. They set out to the capital city of Ionia, Sardis. The Greeks made a quick preemptive attack on Sardis. The small Persian garrisons based in Sardis fled to the acropolis. Part of Sardis was despite being build and populated mostly by Greeks, was burned to the ground. Darius was furious and sent troops into Ionia after a year in 492BC the rebellion was utterly crushed, many Ionian and Athenian troops and commanders were slain these included Eualcides, the war perhaps numbered to about 35-40,000 Greek casualties (estimation). Darius’ attention now turned to the Athenians whose participation in the revolt was a major contributing cause of the Greco-Persian wars; Darius’ aims were to sack the city of Athens and use being conquest of mainland Greece and later, the rest of Europe. Tensions between Athens and Persia rise to boiling point.

According to Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus our main source for the Battle of Marathon, before every meal Darius was remained by his advisor "Master, remember the Athenians”, Darius sent out a messenger to the individual city states of Greece demanding “earth and water” a symbol of submission in Zoroastrian religion and Persian culture .The replies were simple, the vast majority of cities did as asked, fearing the wrath of Darius and the Persians. In Athens, however, the ambassadors were put on trial and then executed; in Sparta, they were simply thrown down a well. This firmly and finally drew the battle-lines for the coming conflict; and tensions became hostile.

Darius’ reason to attack Greece and bringing it to Persian rule was fully vindicated, he gathered his military forces together, and his army was amphibious. Darius’ land force was assembled at Susa while his fleet was compiled in Cilicia. High command was given to Datis “the Mede” and Artaphernes. Although Herodotus does not give us a specific size only saying they formed a "large infantry that was well packed". Modern historian generally gives the Persian invasion force at about 26,000. 

Persians move in for the kill
The Persian commander, Datis led his navy into the Aegean Sea capturing many islands such as Karystos, Delos and Naxos where the Persian enslaved the population and burned the temples. The Persian fleet next headed for the coast of Attica landing at the bay of Marathon, roughly 25 miles (40 km) from Athens, on the advice of Hippias, son of the former tyrant of Athens Peisistratus.

The Athenians were led by a former tyrant and ruler of Thracian Chersonese, Miltiades. He was a skilled commander and was forced by the Athenian governing body to lead the Athenian forces. Miltiades with an army of 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans marched to out to Marathon to meet the Persian invaders.

Armies of the opposing forces
Persian forces were drawn from across the Persian Empire. According to Herodotus, a vivid variety of ethic races served the Persians. Swordsmen and bowmen from the banks of the river Indus, Scythians, Armenians, Syrians, Ethiopians, Sakans, Indians and even Ionians and Greeks are referred to have been under the service of the Persians, most the army was made up of lightly armed infantry wearing thick leather armour to protect their torso’s and a tightly wrapped woollen headscarf’s would have been commonly worn by the lower social classed Persian warriors. Iranians however provided the core force of the military, the heavily armoured elite Immortals and aristocracy made up the Iranian regiment of the army. War horses and heavy cavalry are also documented as being utilized by Persians, these cavalry numbered to about 1,000 troops. The nomadic Iranic tribes provided the solid backbone of the cavalry force. Herodotus specifically mentions the presence of the Saka peoples at Marathon. The Persian navy was primarily made up of Phoenician, Ethiopian, Cilician, Cypriot and Arab marines. The ships were made from the high quality cedar wood grown in Phoenicia.

The Greek army was made up of 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans these troops were mostly made up of heavily armoured hoplites that were primarily armed as spear-men and fought in a phalanx formation. The word "hoplite" derives from hoplon, the type of the shield used by the troopers. The phalanx formation was made up of a tightly packed group of hoplites that’s 2.5 meter spear pointed out towards the enemy. The hoplites shields overlapped the shield of other hoplites, making this formation virtually impenetrable from the front. The Athenians also asked for Spartan aid against the Persians. The Spartans agreed but only after their holy ceremonies’ had been completed. But time was running out for the Athenians and they marched to Marathon, alone.

Strategy and tactics of the battle
Marathon itself located in the middle of valley, this valley was the only path to Athens. Miltiades decided to block the valley entrance he deployed his troops in the mouth of the valley. This made it impossible for the Persians to advance further, the phalanx his deployed in the valley.  Phalanx formation is well known for its weak flank and rear sides; however in the valley the flanks are well protected. Miltiades also ordered the valley sides to be covered with trees and logs for good measure and extra protection, especially against Persian cavalry strikes. Essentially, Persian cavalry had been taken out the battle because of this Athenian deployment.

Persian infantry was much lighter than that of the Greeks. Persian tactics were mostly a “shock and awe”; the style of fighting used by the Persians was probably to stand off from an enemy, using their bows (or equivalent) to wear down the enemy before closing in to deliver the coup de grace with spear and sword. The battle begins In late 490BC the Battle of Marathon begun, the Athenian deployment meant that there was no reason to move out of their protective cocoon. While the Athenians could wait, the Persians however needed to assault the Athenian forces in order to free the path to Athens and achieve their objectives of burning Athens to the ground. 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. Datis was growing impatient and ordered his men to prepare for battle. Before the inevitable Persian charge, Persian archers barraged the Athenians with arrows, in an attempt to break Athenian lines and moral. It failed and little causalities were inflicted on the Athenian troops, this was because the arrows used by the Persian troops were made from date palms and tipped with bronze, against the high quality Greek armor and hoplon shields, it was ineffective and according to some historians would “bounce of the Greek shields” however this is obviously a hyperbole.

Finally the frustrated Persians launched their attack; the wave was made up of lightly armoured infantry probably of the Indian and Saka contingents. But they could not stand up to the organised and persistent Greek hoplites, the phalanx effectively kept back the crushing weight of the Persian charge. The light infantry failed to even dent the Greek phalanx wall and they withdrew back to camp with high causalities.

Miltiades was despite being outnumbered holding his position against the vast Persian forces. Datis could not withdraw from the fight without using everything he had at his disposal, imperial prestige was at stake and Datis could not allow the barbaric and petty Athenians to win against the largest Empire on earth. With his dilemma Datis moved the storm troopers of the Persian Empire; the Immortals, these heavily armored infantry served as the guards of Darius. After the Athenian troops heard that Datis was sending in the Immortals, they panicked and Miltiades had to rethink his strategy and formation, it would have been possible that Datis used propaganda and legendary stories about the Immortals to terrify the Athenians into thinking they were literally “immortal” but of course the Immortals amazing killing power gave them a fierce repetition across the known world, the fact that the Immortals (and Persians) had never defeated in a major conflict may have also been another reason.  Miltiades had to redeploy his army, and the reason for this was because the area his troops covered was still wider than he had sufficient troops to cover. He decided to weaken his centre and move the additional troops to the side. The Athenian force now had a relatively weak force in the centre but, heavily phalanxes in the sides. Miltiades then took another gamble by moving his troops out of the protective cocoon. This was because if he was to stay were his was then when the centre would be hit it would suddenly flex in, the problem would be that if this happened then their would not be enough room for his heavy phalanxes on the ends to maneuver inwards as they would be jammed up against the terrain.

Once the Athenians had moved out of the valley, they quickly redeployed their forces and the Persians charged. The Persians surged forward and begun to beat back the Athenian forces. The weak Athenian centre couldn’t hold the sheer weight of the Persian army, and the Athenians in the centre were pushed back. However the Athenian hoplites on the wings held strong.  Herodotus tells us that just before the Athenians of the center were about to break they were rallied by their officers to counter attack, this counter attack stopped the crushing attack of the Persians and allowed the wings of the Athenians to move in from the sides. The Athenians begun to surround the Persians on every side (expect the rear). This stroke of military genius brought the Persians into a death trap, and seeing no way to defeat the Athenians the Persians broke and fled for their ships.

The Persians however would have taken a considerable amount of time to gather what remained of their supplies and wounded and take them to their ships. The Athenians however wouldn’t have pursued them immediately until they were well rested and ready to go on the offensive again. The Athenians then marched towards the beach encouraging the Persians to leave. Fighting broke out again as the Persian rear guard tried to protect the retreat. The Athenians butchered them and captured seven of the fleeing boats. Herodotus recounted a story were a Greek soldier grabs a boat with his left hand the fleeing Persians cut his hand of, undaunted however he grabs the boat with his right hand which also gets chopped off. The Greek soldier bites the boat and try’s to hold it onto the beach with his teeth .This is an example of the sheer exaggeration that Herodotus used and is famed for.

The Greeks are able to rout the Persians, but the threat is not over. The Persians headed straight for Athens. Miltiades sends a runner, Philippides from Marathon to Athens with news of victory. Philippides runs a distance of 26 miles and runs into the town square and yells nenikékamen ("We have won") and collapsed and died on the spot from exhaustion. This is where we get the phrase “to run a Marathon” the Marathon race is run for 26 miles, the distance of Marathon to Athens. Miltiades realized that the fight was not over, and ordered his exhausted troops to march to Athens through night.

Early the next day Datis arrives at the bay of Athens to see that Miltiades and his forces on the walls. Datis understanding the difficultly of an amphibious attack ordered his men to set course for Asia, Athens remained free. To commentate their victory they build the Parthenon carved into the walls of the Parthenon were 192 figures, one for each man slain at Marathon. The Athenians utterly crushed the Persians at the battle of Marathon, the Persian lost 6,400 men the Athenians only 192 (one of which was an Athenian high ranking commander and polemarch Callimachus) and their Plataean allies lost 11 men.Darius was furious; the pigmy state of Athens had yet again insulted the Persians again and gotten away with it. Darius made an oath that if he was to live long enough he would take revenge on Athens. Darius however died only months after Marathon. The hero of Athens, Miltiades was sent to prison a year after Marathon after getting into debt and he died, probably of gangrene from his battle wounds. Aftermath of Marathon

After the Battle of Marathon, Persia was not all invincible and showed the world that the Persians could be defeated, and that resistance, rather than subjugation, was a possibility. Marathon called out as a battle cry for many nations under the foot of the Persians and riots begun across the Empire. For the Greeks, it brought them out of obscurity and a dark age into one of the centre stages of the ancient world. Marathon was the beginning of a vicious 150 year on and off war between the Persians and the Greeks, East and West and it all begun on the blood soaked plains, of Marathon.

If you would like more information on the Persian Immortals please refer to this article
Herodotus, The Histories Thucydides, History of The Peloponnesian Wars
Diodorus Siculus, Library Lysias, Funeral Oration Plato, Menexenus
Xenophon Anabasis Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution Aristophanes, The Knights Cornelius Nepos Lives of the Eminent Commanders (Miltiades)
Plutarch Parallel Lives (Aristides, Themistocles, Theseus), On the Malice of Herodotus Lucian, Mistakes in Greeting Pausanias, Description of Greece
Claudius Aelianus Various history & On the Nature of Animals Marcus Junianus Justinus Epitome of the Phillipic Photius, Bibliotheca or Myriobiblon: Epitome of Persica by Ctesias Suda Dictionary  Fuller, J.F.C. A Military History of the Western World. Funk & Wagnalls, 1954.


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Jonny Dollar

Thanks for the insightful article! A little late for me though

by Jonny Dollar on

I wish you had written this a little earlier. Just last night I finished the "Persian Fire" by Tom Holland. I find a lot of stories that I just cannot believe. How could they have known certain non-sense details? Your article would have saved me many hours.

you forgot to mention that Persian king blamed the loss of the navy on Phoenician ship builders who were blaming the loss of the ships on other things, not themselves (many things never change - reminds me of my lebanese friend). As a result the king ordered them to be decapatosated then.



Excellent article

by Simorgh5555 on

Herodotus the liar. 


The thing about Marathon I find hard to believe in...

by Roozbeh_Gilani on

Is the guy dropping dead after the 26 miles, 400yds run! I am one of those somehow sad people who trains for regularly and does two marathons per year. The biggest injury thus far a dislocated elbow (yes elbow not knee!) joint due to a fall three years back. All the people I train with and all the runners at competition are quite healthy for their age. So Thanks to ancient Greece and Persia for providing us with this excelent oppurtunity for testing our endurance against physical pain!

And my apologies for the irrelevent comment to your otherwise good blog. 

"Personal business must yield to collective interest."