The Battle of Marathon
One of the most significant battles in antiquity was fought on the narrow, tree strewn plain of Marathon, in September, 490 BC. There, the Athenian army defeated a Persian force more than twice its size, because of superior leadership, training and equipment. The battle of Marathon has provided inspiration to the underdogs throughout history. In 490 BC, the Athenians proved that superior strategy, and technology can claim victory over massive numbers.
In 646 BC the Persian armies, led by Cyrus, conquered the Greek city-state of Ionia, in Asia Minor. Despite the mildness of Persian rule, the Ionians did not like their conquerors. The Persians seemed barbaric to the cultured Ionians. The main objection to Persian rule, however, was that Ionians had been accustomed to self-government. The Persian king Darius I, who ruled over the conquered land of Ionia, was an all-powerful ruler. The Ionians never accepted the monarchy, and in 499 BC, they revolted against the Persians. Athens and another mainland polis, Eritrea, sent warships to help the Ionians, but Darius 1 of Persia soon defeated the Ionians. Darius then decided to punish the mainland Greeks for aiding the rebels revolt. Darius was so obsessed with punishing the Greeks that he employed a slave, whose sole responsibility was to say to him three times a day, at every meal, ?Remember the Athenians?.
Darius? first attempt at capturing Athens was a complete failure from the beginning. He sent an army around the northern coast of the Aegean Sea. However, a storm destroyed his supply ships, forcing him to turn back. Two years later Darius tried again. He sent a large army and fleet of about 200 ships directly across the Aegean Sea to seize the Greek islands of the Aegean Sea and to punish the cities of Eretrea and Athens for having aided the rebellious Ionian cities in Asia Minor. Darius? troops under Datis and Artapherrnes, which included Ionians and other subject peoples as well as Persians, captured several island towns and took Eretrea on Euboea by treachery. The fleet then crossed the narrow strait from Euboea to the Greek mainland and disembarked about 25000 men, both cavalry and infantry, on the beach at Marathon in northeastern Attica. Here there was fine shelving sand that would make it easy to haul up the large Persian warships and disembarked their horses. Hippias, the tyrant of Athens who had been exiled in 510 BC accompanied the Persians. His ?inside information? was obviously useful. The location also provided natural protection on the landward side, an easy line of retreat by sea, and good grazing for the Persians? horses.
The Athenian general Meltiades persuaded the assembly of the Athenian democracy to dispatch him and the rest of the board of ten generals with 10000 hoplites to Marathon. Hoplites were heavily armed infantry soldiers. Philippides was sent to Sparta to ask the Spartans for aid. At the time, no one believed victory would be possible without the help of Sparta. They were the best-trained warriors in Greece. Phillippedes reached Sparta, 140 miles away, the day after he set out. The Spartans, however could not be hurried, and said that they would only dispatch their men after the six-day festival honoring Apollo. Sending any men before that time would insure defeat, because the god would be displeased. Meanwhile a thousand Plataeans from Boeotia marched to the aid of the Athenians. For three days, nothing happened. The two armies sat facing one another, two or three miles apart. Neither army was prepared to make the first move. But the Athenian army did not sit twiddling their thumbs; they cut trees and set the branches facing the Persians, to defend against the cavalry of Datis. The Persian camp was at the west edge of a great marsh in the northeast part of the plain. The Athenians were on the plain of Heracles. The Athenian generals were equally divided on whether or not to engage the enemy, hoping that if they waited long enough the Spartans might show up. If the Spartans did show up it would be a great help to the Athenians. Callimachus, one of the generals, broke the tie by changing his vote in favor of attack. Each general ordinarily held military command for one day, but the generals gave over their days of command to Miltiades, who therefore became the supreme commander for the Battle of Marathon.
While the Athenians had debated whether or not to attack, the Persians planned for Hippias to start a civil war in Athens; this maneuver would make the Athenians easier prey. Believing that civil war had broken out in Athens, the Persians loaded part of their forces including all of their cavalry onto ships to sail to Athens and attack the city. Before dawn on the first day of Miltiades? command, the Ionians noticed that the Persian calvary was not in the Persian camp. The Ionians immediately informed the Athenians that the Persian cavalry was not in the Persians camp.
Miltiades ordered an attack at dawn. With a strong right and left wing and a thin center, the Athenians charged, and when they came within bowshot range they spread at both wings. They then turned and attacked the rear of the Persian army, which had punched through the Athenian line. The battle site proved perfect for the Athenians. Dais, the Persian general, needed room to use his cavalry, but the battle was fought in a narrow neck of the plain, so only a few thousand of the 25,000 Persians on hand could fight at any one time. Miltiades timing was also critical to his victory. The Persians seemed to have been unnerved by the sudden Athenian advance. The Persians fled to their ships, but many died in the marsh as they retreated. The Persians suffered a loss of seven ships and 6,400 men, while the Athenian casualties numbered only 192 men. This was the first time that the Greek phalanx had come against the Persians? and their unorganized way of fighting.
Before the victory celebrations could begin, the Athens noticed someone signaling to the Persians at sea by sunlight reflected off from a shield. Suspecting that some Athenians might be collaborating with the Persians and were planning to betray the city to them, the Athenians immediately marched to Athens. They arrived before the Persian fleet was able to reach the city, so the Persians abandoned the invasion and sailed to Asia. Victory had gone to the outnumbered Athenians.
The Spartans arrived the next day, too late to be of any help. When they saw the battlefield, they praised the Athenians. The Athenian grave mound still stands as a memorial to one of the world?s greatest battles. To give thanks to Athena, the patron goddess of the city, for the victory, Athens began the construction of the magnificent Parthenon temple atop the acropolis, the hill overlooking the city. The Parthenon was still not complete 10 years later when the Persians returned. These men?s fellow citizens raised the mound to commemorate them as heroes. The Battle at Marathon gave the Athenians a feeling that they could do anything. After all they had defeated the Persians without the help of Sparta. A victory trophy was erected over he Persian camp. Indeed, the symbolic importance of the Battle of Marathon far outweighed its military significance. Athenian leaders thereafter boasted that they had stood fast before the feared barbarians, even though the mighty Spartans had not come in time to help them. The victory also demonstrated the superiority of the Greek long spear and armor over the weapons of the Persians, as well as the superior tactics of Miltiades and the military training of the Greek hoplites. The choice of weapons, training of warriors, selection of battle site, and timing had all worked together to help the Athenians prove that size doesn?t always matter.
?Two thousand years after the victory of the Athenians over the Persians, writers continued to call upon the name of Marathon to symbolize humanity?s struggle for freedom. The nineteenth-century English poet Lord Byron, who fought for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, penned the following verse:?
The mountains look on Marathon
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream?d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians? grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
poem Don Juan, 1821