The Battle of Marathon (According to Herodotus)

Casus Belli

In 491 B.C. King Darius I of Persia sent out his envoys to the various Greek city states, demanding of them earth and water – in those times, a sign of submission, the acceptance of, in this case, Persian rule. Some city states were cowed into complying while others refused; but the demand went down particularly badly in Athens and in Sparta:

…the Athenians cast these heralds, when they made their request, down into a pit, and the Spartans had thrown theirs into a well; and the heralds were told to take their earth and water to the King from there!

(Herodotus: The Histories, Book VII.133) 

I’m no fan of Darius – or indeed of anybody who invades somebody else’s home – but this did provide him with a splendid casus belli. Killing ambassadors was generally considered bad form even by the ancients; no wonder the Spartans subsequently asked for volunteers to sacrifice themselves in order to exonerate the city’s guilt in the eyes of the gods (and in the eyes of the Persians while they were at it).

In addition to the infamous death of the envoys, there was also the small matter of the Athenian support for the Ionian Greeks when these had rebelled against Persian rule and their burning of Sardis in the course of it:

…word reached Darius that Sardis had been burned by the Athenians and Ionians… It is said that when Darius first heard this report… he inquired who the Athenians were, and after he had been told, he asked for a bow.

He took the bow, set an arrow on its string, and shot the arrow towards the heavens. And as it flew high into the air, he said: “Zeus, let it be granted to me to punish the Athenians.”

After saying this, he appointed one of his attendants to repeat to him three times whenever his dinner was served: “My lord, remember the Athenians.”

(Herodotus: The Histories, Book V.105)

(You can see where Cato the Elder got the inspiration for Carthago delenda est.)

A year after the death of his envoys, in 490 BC, Darius duly invaded Greece to punish Athens and Sparta for their insolence.

The Field of Marathon

Whether it was the Scythian adventure that put the Persians off a long land campaign or whether they just didn’t fancy walking all the way to Athens, the Persian invasion of Greece came via the sea. Not that going by sea was without dangers. Two years earlier a Persian fleet, hit by a storm under Mount Athos, had gone straight to the bottom of the sea with the loss of 300 triremes and 20 thousand men (VI.44). No wonder therefore that this time Darius chose a different route: through the Greek archipelago.

Subduing the islands one by one, and then taking Eretria, Athens’ ‘partner in crime’ during the Ionian Revolt, on the Greek mainland, the Persian fleet arrived at Marathon, near Athens, in late summer, 490 B.C.

They chose the location because…

“Marathon was the region of Attica most suitable for cavalry as well as the one closest to Eretria…” (VI.102)

Marathon suited the traditional Persian method of fighting, which involved archers firing from behind a defensive barrier of infantry, followed up by a cavalry charge.

The field of Marathon
The field of Marathon. Photo: Adam Carr. Source:Wikipedia

Fleet-Footed Philippides

The Athenians sent the professional long-distance runner Philippides (also known as Pheidippides) to Sparta to solicit aid – he made the journey (about 240 kilometres) in two days:

…he arrived in Sparta on the day after he had left Athens. There he said to the magistrates:

“Lacedaemonians, the Athenians beg you to rush to their defence and not look on passively as the most ancient city in Hellas falls into slavery imposed by barbarians…” (VI. 106)

Unfortunately, the Spartans, willing as they were to come to the aid of the Athenians, had other things on their mind just then. Herodotus says that a religious celebration prevented them from going to war until the full moon (VI.106); somewhat later Plato wrote that they were held up by waging war on the Messenes (Laws, 698). Either way, the Spartans were unable to set out immediately.

The Battle of Marathon

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 strategoi (generals), among them Miltiades, a man of a rather checkered career and doubtful reputation, 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)

Being Athenians, they of course decided to put the issue to 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… but if this city prevails, it can become the first among all Greek cities.

…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 rhetoric ability; Kallimachos did not lack vanity. Presented with an emotive choice between becoming responsible for reducing Athens to slavery or earning himself ever-lasting fame by taking Miltiades’s side, Kallimachos saw at once where his duty lay. The vote went Miltiades’s way; the Athenians decided to do battle.

The helmet of Miltiades, Archaeological Museum of Olympia. If you’ve got good enough eyes, you can just make out his name carved into the bottom of the helmet.(Photo by Oren Rozen, via Wikipedia.)

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). That day was the 11 September, 490 B.C.

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 brother of Aeschylus, the famous Greek dramatist who had the misfortune of having to fight in both Persian Wars, fell in this fight by the ships, as did Kallimachos of the casting vote.

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)

The Race from Marathon

Despite the decisive victory (the Persians lost about 6400 men, the Athenians 192), 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. (VI.115)

The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, built around 440 B.C. The previous temple on the site was destroyed by the Persians during the Second Persian War in 480 B.C.

The Persians were sailing towards the undefended city. Cutting across the peninsula, however, Miltiades’ army reached Athens first and prevented a Persian landing. King Darius’ army fled from Greece in defeat; and the First Persian War was over.

Now while the Persians were sailing around Sounion, the Athenians were marching back as fast as they could to defend their city, and they managed to arrive there in advance of the barbarian fleet… The barbarians anchored their ships off Phaleron (for that was the harbour of the Athenians at the time), held their ships there for a while and then sailed back to Asia. (VI.116)

Most people nowadays only know about Marathon because of the marathon race. But the story which served as its origin, in which Philippides (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:

…Philippides the dispatch-runner. Bringing the news of Marathon, he found the archons seated, in suspense regarding the issue of the battle. ‘Joy, we win!’ he said, and died upon his message, breathing his last in the word Joy.

(The Complete Works of Lucian of Samosata, Vol. II)

From Sparta to Marathon

The Spartans, despite an impressive forced march which saw them reach Athens in less than three days (they took hardly more time that the renowned Athenian runner Philippides, despite being burdened with battle gear), still arrived too late, missing the fight by a mere day.

“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)

The time for Spartan heroics against the Persians would not come for another ten years.

Simonides’s Epigram

Ελλήνων προμαχούντες Αθηναίοι,
Μαραθώνι χρυσοφόρων Μήδων εστόρεσαν δύναμιν

 “At Marathon for Greece the Athenians fought;
And low the gilded Medians’ power they brought.”


You might also like:The Original 'Marathon Runner' (The Classical Weekly, Vol. 24, No. 19, 23 March 1931)
⇒ The Isles of Greece by Lord Byron

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