September 12th 490BC* - There has always been many myths and legends surrounding this famous battle – one of the earliest recorded. Much of our information comes from the “Father of History” Herodotus who wrote his Histories about 40 years after the event in the 450s BC having used many eye witness accounts. The result of the battle was crucial to future world events. The Greek victory gave them a confidence in their fledgling democracy and led to a development of Greek culture especially in maths, philosophy, drama and astronomy.
The Persians had long coveted the Greek lands and resented the help the city-states had given their Ionian neighbours in fighting back against Persian rule. Darius, the Persian leader, took this opportunity to try and destroy the Greeks and add the land to the already large empire. Greece was not one country but a series of City States such as Sparta, Athens, Corinth and Argos to name the most powerful. Usually these states fought each other with the best-known example being the Peloponnesian Wars between the Spartans and the Athenians. However when their land was invaded they would often come together and help fight off any intended usurper. They would also come together every four years for a festival known as the Olympics – held in Olympia.
In 490BC Darius had sent his fleet of 600 ships via Rhodes and up the Aegean Sea. If they had landed at Athens itself it would have given the defenders too long to get ready as they would have been see far off. Instead they landed on the plains of Marathon. Athenian lookouts, placed on the hills and mountains, would still have seen them arrive however. A beacon, probably on Mount Pentelikon, would have notified the Athenians that an invasion had occurred. Many of its citizens wished that the city could return to the autocracy of before so that decisions would be made quickly and an army formed. The Citizens however had to vote for what to do. Practically they had three options – hide in the Acropolis and defend it, fight at Marathon or give in and hope to be spared.
The General Miltiades took control and argued strongly for an army to be sent to Marathon. He argued that the army of Hoplites was good enough for anyone. These hoplites were fit, strong soldiers, well disciplined and armed with a round shield and a spear. The more wealthy of their numbers had fitting metal armour around their chests; the slightly less well off had layers of linen cloth glued together to form a thick coat. They wore metal greaves to protect their shins and a metal helmet sometimes with a crest sticking up to make them look bigger and fiercer. They fought in a phalanx formation which was 8 to 10 men deep and groups of these would look very much like a human tank coming towards you with its wall of shields and spears sticking out. When it gathered momentum it was hard to stop it moving.
Miltiades got his way and the vote was for an army to march to Marathon. A professional herald, called Pheidippides, was sent to Sparta, 150 miles away to ask for their help. 10,000 Athenian soldiers meanwhile started the march towards the Persian army who numbered in the region of 20,000, although some have put the figure nearer 80,000! The Athenians camped nearby hoping that the Spartans would arrive but after 5 days it appeared that this was not going to happen. The Persian army marched onto the plain – a large flat area that seemed well suited to the their cavalry. The two armies now lined up opposite each other and the usual phalanx set up meant that the Persian army easily outflanked the Athenians. Thus the defenders had to spread out meaning that in the centre they were no more than 2 or 3 deep. They had re-enforced the flanks to stop the Persians coming around the side to engulf them. It was usual practice that when you broke through the line you chased those fleeing as far as possible and finish them off. Miltiades had instructed his men on the flanks to show restraint and stay to fight as the Persians enjoyed such numerical superiority they needed all the help they could get.
Miltiades also knew that the Persians had lethal archers who could destroy the ranks of Athenians before they had even reached the enemy. He thus told them to advance at a fast run with their shields held high to stop the archers from having too much of an effect. To most this seemed suicidal as it was difficult to keep in formation and gaps would open up in the thin lines. To the sound of trumpets the advance began. It was a very hot day and the run was the last thing any soldier would have wanted. However it was to save their lives. The Persians were taken by surprise and the archers had very little impact.
There was now a phase of hand-to-hand fighting with the Persian cavalry unable to get through their infantry to get at the enemy. The flanks of the Athenians were able to defeat their lightly armed counterparts but their centre was weakening. Eventually the Persians broke through and poured through the gap. However the Athenian hoplites were now able to push in from the sides and surround the Persian soldiers who were now caught as if in a vice. The Persians started to run for their lives back to their boats hotly pursued by the Athenians. There was much fighting again around these ships and the general Kallimachos and many others were killed. In total it is estimated the Persians lost 6,400 to just 192 Greeks.
The Persians, now back on their boats, thought they could sail to Athens and attack it as they felt it would be undefended. Pheidippides, who had returned from Sparta to take part in the battle, was now asked to run the 26 miles back to Athens to let them know that they had won. When he arrived at the Agora he announced νικωευ, which means, “We have won”. He then collapsed and died. Whether this happened or not is a matter of great debate with many thinking that this is a romantic legend. Herodotus does not mention it in his writings which gives credence to this view. Nonetheless it is a good story and the poet Robert Browning wrote a poem about it in 1879. The first and last verses are below:
First I salute this soil of the blessed, river and rock!
Gods of my birthplace, dæmons and heroes, honour to all!
Then I name thee, claim thee for our patron, co-equal in praise
—Ay, with Zeus the Defender, with Her of the ægis and spear!
Also, ye of the bow and the buskin, praised be your peer,
Now, henceforth, and forever,—O latest to whom I upraise
Hand and heart and voice! For Athens, leave pasture and flock!
Present to help, potent to save, Pan—patron I call!
So, to this day, when friend meets friend, the word of salute
Is still "Rejoice!"—his word which brought rejoicing indeed.
So is Pheidippides happy forever,—the noble strong man
Who could race like a god, bear the face of a god, whom a god loved so well,
He saw the land saved he had helped to save, and was suffered to tell
Such tidings, yet never decline, but, gloriously as he began,
So to end gloriously—once to shout, thereafter be mute:
"Athens is saved!"—Pheidippides dies in the shout for his meed.
Whatever the truth Baron Pierre de Coubertin and others, when starting the Modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, included a race of 26 miles and called it the Marathon.
In 1982 Wing Commander John Foden and 4 other R.A.F. servicemen headed to Athens to see if it was possible to run the 150 miles from Athens to Sparta in the same time that Pheidippides did it in 490BC. 3 completed the task and since 1983 the “Spartathlon” has been run as an annual race.
Back to 490BC and the Athenians were not allowed to rest on their laurels but were forced marched back to Athens to defend it against another possible attack from the fast rowing Persians in their triremes. The Persians were unable to get a foothold on Greek soil and returned a beaten force. Greece was to flourish as a result. The myth of the unbeatable Persians was gone – although they did attack again and the wars lasted until 449BC including the famous conflicts at Thermopylae and the naval battle at Salamis. The Persians were always repulsed and fast forward just over a century later and the Greek, Alexander the Great, of Macedonia, was to capture Persia in the 330s BC. The tables well and truly turned.
* Recent scholarship based on lunar studies of the period suggests that the date of the battle could be August 12th. The September date is based on research by the nineteenth century scholar August Boeckh (ironically) using writings from near the time of the battle.