A year after the infamous death of his envoys, in 490 BC, King Darius I of Persia duly invaded Greece to punish Athens and Sparta for their insolence.
Sailing through the Greek archipelago and subduing the islands one by one, the Persian fleet arrived at Marathon, near Athens, in late summer. The Athenians sent the long-distance runner Pheidippides to Sparta to solicit aid – he made the journey (about 240 kilometres) in two days but the Spartans, constrained by their religious practices, were unable to set out immediately. (VI.105-106)
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.
‘The Isles of Greece’ by Lord Byron
Led by ten generals, among them Miltiades, the Athenians marched out of their city to confront the Persians on the field of Marathon. Although they were there joined by the Plataeans, they were still vastly outnumbered and had neither cavalry, nor archers. The generals were in two minds:
“The Athenian generals were divided in their opinions: some were against joining battle, thinking their own numbers were too few to engage the forces of the Medes, while others, including Miltiades, urged that they fight.” (VI. 109)
This being Athenians, they decided to put the issue to the vote. And since the casting vote belonged to a man by the name of Kallimachos, Miltiades sought him out in private:
“It is now up to you, Kallimachos, whether you will reduce Athens to slavery, or ensure its freedom and thus leave to all posterity a memorial for yourself… For from the time Athenians first came into existence up until the present, this is the greatest danger they have ever confronted. If they bow down before the Medes, it is clear from our past experience what they will suffer…
…If you add your vote for my proposal, your ancestral land can be free and your city the first of Greek cities. But if you choose the side of those eager to prevent a battle, you will have the opposite…” (VI.109)
Miltiades did not lack in rhetoric ability. He offered Kallimachos a choice between becoming responsible for reducing Athens to slavery or earning himself ever-lasting fame by taking his, that is Miltiades’, side. Presented with the case in these clearly emotive terms, Kallimachos was persuaded. The vote went Miltiades’ way; the Athenians decided to do battle.
The custom among the Athenians at this time was that the generals took turns day by day in commanding the army; now each of the generals who wished to fight ceded their command to Miltiades in turn; regardless, he decided to wait until it was his turn to command the army anyway. (VI. 110)
As the Greeks were drawn up in battle order, and Miltiades gave the order to attack, the Persians, fully aware of their numerical superiority, thought that the Greeks were struck by a fatal madness:
“…and the Persians, who saw the Athenians advancing toward them on the double, prepared to meet their attack; they assumed that the Athenians were seized by some utterly self-destructive madness, as they observed how few the Athenians were in number and how they were charging toward them with neither cavalry nor archers in support.” (VI.112)
A long and hard fight followed, in which the Persians broke the Athenian battle ranks in the centre but were themselves routed on the wings. Eventually, the Athenian wings closed around the enemy:
“…the Athenians were victorious, and as the Persians fled, the Athenians pursued them and cut them down until they reached the sea where they called for fire and started to seize the ships.” (VI. 113)
The Athenians captured seven ships but the rest of the Persian fleet managed to set sail. The battle of Marathon was over; and for the first time, the Greeks managed to defeat the dreaded Persians:
“… they [the Athenians] fought remarkably well. For they were the first of all Hellenes we know of to use the running charge against their enemies, as well as the first to endure the sight of Medes’ clothing and the men wearing it. In fact, until then, even to hear the name “Medes” spoken would strike terror into Hellenes.” (VI. 112)
Despite the decisive victory (the Persians lost about six thousand four hundred men, the Athenians one hundred and ninety-two), the danger for Athens had not yet passed. Rather than sail back to Asia, the Persian fleet rounded Cape Sounion:
“The barbarians… sailed around Sounion, hoping to arrive at the city of Athens before the Athenians could march there.”
The Persians were sailing towards the undefended city. Cutting across the peninsula, Miltiades’ army reached Athens first however and prevented a Persian landing. King Darius’ army fled from Greece in defeat; and the First Persian War was over.
The Spartans, despite an impressive forced march which saw them reach Athens in less than three days (they took hardly more time that the Athenian runner Pheidippides), still arrived too late to take any part in the fight; they could only view the Persian dead on the battlefield.
“2000 Lacedaemonians marched to Athens in such great haste that they arrived in Attica on the third day out of Sparta. They were too late to engage in battle, but nevertheless wished to see the Medes, which they did when they reached Marathon. Then they praised the Athenians for their achievement and went home.” (VI. 120)
Most people nowadays only know about Marathon because of the marathon race. But the story which served as its origin, in which Pheidippides (the runner who had been previously sent to Sparta) ran the entire distance of about 42 kilometres from Marathon to Athens after the battle to report the victory only to collapse dead of exhaustion afterwards, is not one from Herodotus; it was mentioned first by Lucian centuries later.
Ελλήνων προμαχούντες Αθηναίοι,
Μαραθώνι χρυσοφόρων Μήδων εστόρεσαν δύναμιν
“At Marathon for Greece the Athenians fought;
And low the gilded Medians’ power they brought.”