Battle of Marathon
Greece’s Finest Hour
In 499 BCE, the Ionian Greek city-states rose up against Darius I from the Achaemenid Empire. Their rebellion was crushed by 494 BCE. In retaliation, Darius targeted Eretria and Athens for supporting the Ionians and planned an invasion of Greece to discipline them.
Map showing the Greek world during the Greco-Persian Wars (ca. 500–479 BCE)
Datis and Artaphernes, leading the Persian army, first took over the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea. Subsequently, they attacked and razed Eretria. They then advanced to Marathon on the Greek mainland, positioning themselves for an assault on Athens. The stage was now set for the iconic Battle of Marathon.
Upon learning of the Persian invasion, Athenian generals debated their next move: stand their ground or confront the invaders. They chose to face the threat head-on. A few days later, the Athenian army, under the leadership of General Miltiades, arrived at Marathon. They established their base near the Hercules sanctuary at the bay’s western tip.
Greek troops rushing forward at the Battle of Marathon. By Georges Rochegrosse, 1911.
Anticipating the need for a stronger force to fend off the Persians from Athens, Miltiades dispatched runners to Sparta and Plataea, seeking reinforcements. The Spartans, known for their military prowess, were preoccupied with a religious festival and couldn’t join the battle immediately, arriving a day late. The Plataeans, however, were ready and willing to assist. They bolstered the Athenian forces with an additional 1,000 soldiers.
Understanding that facing the Persian cavalry on an open field would be a mistake, the Greeks waited for the right moment. When they found out that the cavalry was temporarily not present at the Persian camp, Miltiades commanded an all-out attack on the Persian infantry.
Persian Archers at Darius’ palace
The Persian cavalry’s disappearance during the battle remains a mystery. Some historians speculate that the uneven terrain filled with sporadic trees hindered their effective deployment, while others suggest a possible maneuver towards Athens either to seize the city during the Greek army’s absence or as a strategy to lure the Greeks into battle before Spartan reinforcements arrived.
Regardless, Miltiades utilized the moment well, leading 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans to triumph over the 15,000-strong Persian army. He strengthened the flanks of his formation, luring the elite Persian forces into a trap at the center, where they were then encircled by the Greek wings folding inward. Overwhelmed, the Persians retreated, suffering heavy losses before reaching their ships. They lost around 6,400 soldiers compared to the Greeks’ 192, although this latter number might be downplayed for the sake of boosting morale.
A map illustrating the position of Greek (blue) and Persian (red) forces at the Battle of Marathon
Despite their setback at Marathon, the Persians remained undeterred. Datis set his sights on Cape Sounion, the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula, hoping to surprise Athens while its army was away. Responding swiftly, the Greek army hurried back to Athens to safeguard their city. Their same-day nighttime arrival appeared to deter the Persians, who were stationed off Phaleron. Consequently, the Persian fleet retreated to Asia. Just then, 2,000 Spartans made their appearance. But their help was no longer needed—the victory was already secured.
The Persian ambition to conquer Greece didn’t end there. In 480 BCE, Xerxes I, Darius’s son, launched another invasion, determined to achieve what his father couldn’t. In a memorable confrontation, the allied Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, resisted the Persian onslaught for seven days at the Battle of Thermopylae. Their valiant defense became legendary. Yet, the Athenians’ earlier triumph at Marathon remains one of the most celebrated victories in Greek history.
Legend has it that an Athenian messenger ran from Marathon to Athens, covering a distance of roughly 26 miles (42 km). Upon reaching Athens, he proclaimed the Persians’ defeat and then tragically succumbed to exhaustion. This inspiring story laid the foundation for what we know today as the marathon race.
In 490 BCE, the plains of Marathon witnessed a defining battle between the Greeks and the invading Persian forces. This victory became legendary, marking a moment when the Greek city-states showcased their valor, excellence, and quest for freedom. While the Battle of Marathon only momentarily halted the Persian expansionist ambitions, with larger confrontations looming, it was significant in that it revealed the vulnerabilities of the once-invincible Persian Achaemenid Empire. The Battle of Marathon’s aftermath birthed the legend of a messenger running from Marathon to Athens, inspiring the modern marathon race.
Words of wisdom
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ―Winston S. Churchill
“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” ―Coco Chanel
“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” ―George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
“Unless you’re ashamed of yourself now and then, you’re not honest” ―William Faulkner