The Battle of Marathon [490 BC]

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  • May 07, 2022
The Battle of Marathon [490 BC]
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During the first Persian invasion of Greece in 490 BC, the Battle of Marathon took place. It was fought between the inhabitants of Athens, with the assistance of Plataea, and a Persian force led by Datis and Artaphernes. The fight marked the end of Persia's first effort to conquer Greece, led by King Darius I. The more numerous Persian army was crushed by the Greek army, marking a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars.

The Ionian Revolt, in which Athens and Eretria dispatched a force to support the cities of Ionia in their attempt to overthrow Persian control, prompted the first Persian invasion. After successfully seizing and destroying Sardis, the Athenians and Eretrians were forced to retire with great losses. Darius vowed to burn down Athens and Eretria in retaliation for the raid. According to Herodotus, Darius had his bow brought to him and then launched an arrow "upwards towards heaven," saying, "Zeus, grant me revenge upon the Athenians!" Darius also ordered one of his attendants to repeat "Master, remember the Athenians" three times each day before dinner, according to Herodotus.

Sparta and Athens were Greece's two largest city-states at the time of the fight. Darius initiated plans to dominate Greece when the Ionian uprising was eventually defeated by the Persian victory at the Battle of Lade in 494 BC. He despatched a naval task force across the Aegean in 490 BC, led by Datis and Artaphernes, to subdue the Cyclades and then launch punitive attacks on Athens and Eretria. After a victorious campaign in the Aegean, the Persians arrived in Euboea in mid-summer and proceeded to besiege and take Eretria. The Persian fleet then set sail for Attica, arriving at a harbor near Marathon. The Athenians marched to Marathon, supported by a small army from Plataea, and successfully blocked the two exits from the plain of Marathon. The Athenians also appealed to the Spartans for assistance. The Spartans were busy in a religious event when the messenger arrived in Sparta, and they used this as an excuse for not coming to rescue the Athenians.

The Athenians and their allies prepared a battleground with marshes and steep terrain so that the Persian cavalry could not join the Persian infantry. The Athenian general Miltiades ordered a wide assault on the Persian soldiers, which were mostly missile troops. He strengthened his sides and drew the Persians' strongest fighters into his center. The Persians were routed by the inward wheeling flanks. In a panic, the Persian army charged their ships, slaughtering a significant number of them. The Persian invasion of Greece came to an end with the defeat at Marathon, and the Persian troops fled to Asia. Darius subsequently began building a massive new army with which he intended to utterly dominate Greece; however, his Egyptian subjects revolted in 486 BC, delaying any Greek mission indefinitely. Following Darius' death, his son Xerxes I began planning a second invasion of Greece, which commenced in 480 BC.

The Battle of Marathon was a turning point in the Greco-Persian wars, demonstrating to the Greeks that they could defeat the Persians; the eventual Greek victory in these conflicts may be traced back to Marathon. The battle also demonstrated to the Greeks that they could win conflicts without the Spartans, who were regarded as Greece's most powerful military force. The Athenians prevailed by a large margin, and Marathon enhanced Greek admiration for them. The growth of Classical Greek civilization over the next two centuries had a lasting impact on Western society, and the Battle of Marathon is frequently seen as a watershed moment in Mediterranean and European history, and is still commemorated today.


The Ionian Revolt, the first phase of the Greco-Persian Wars, laid the groundwork for the first Persian invasion of Greece. However, it was also the outcome of the Greeks' and Persians' long-term engagement. The Persian Empire was still young and expansionist in 500 BC, yet it was prone to revolts among its subject peoples. Furthermore, the Persian King Darius was a usurper who had spent a significant amount of time suppressing revolts against his power. Darius had begun to expand his kingdom into Europe before the Ionian Revolt, subjugating Thrace and compelling Macedon to become a vassal of Persia. Attempts to expand further into ancient Greece's politically contentious realm may have been unavoidable. The Ionian Revolt, on the other hand, had directly jeopardized the Persian empire's integrity, and the states of mainland Greece remained a potential threat to its future security. Darius made the decision to subjugate and pacify Greece and the Aegean, as well as punish those who participated in the Ionian Revolt.

The Ionian Revolt had started with a failed expedition against Naxos, led by the Persian satrap Artaphernes and the Milesian tyrant Aristagoras. Artaphernes decided to depose Aristagoras, but Aristagoras abdicated and declared Miletus a democracy before Artaphernes could do so. Other Ionian cities followed suit, removing their Persian-appointed rulers and calling themselves democracies. Aristagoras then appealed to the mainland Greek states for assistance, but only Athens and Eretria agreed to send troops.

The Ionian Revolt was sparked by a complicated series of conditions that began with the formation of the Athenian Democracy in the late sixth century BC.

The Athenian people had expelled Hippias, the tyrannical ruler of Athens, in 510 BC with the help of Cleomenes I, King of Sparta. Hippias' father, Peisistratus, had governed for 36 of the preceding 50 years and had every intention of continuing Hippias' reign. Hippias escaped to the Persian satrap Artaphernes' court in Sardis, promising the Persians control of Athens in exchange for their assistance in restoring him. Meanwhile, Cleomenes assisted Isagoras in establishing a pro-Spartan tyranny in Athens, in opposition to Cleisthenes, the leader of the traditionally powerful Alcmaeonidae family, who saw themselves as the legitimate heirs to the throne of Athens. Cleisthenes, on the other hand, saw himself politically vanquished by an Isagoras-led coalition and chose to modify the rules of the game by appealing to the demos (the people), effectively creating a new political faction. This strategy worked, but Cleomenes I, the Spartan King, returned at Isagoras' request, and Cleisthenes, the Alcmaeonids, and other notable Athenian families were exiled from Athens. When Isagoras attempted to establish a restricted oligarchic government, the Athenian people ousted Cleomenes and Isagoras in an unusual and spontaneous gesture. Cleisthenes was thus restored to power in Athens (507 BC), and he quickly set about reforming the state in order to secure his position. The result was neither a democracy nor a true civic state, but he did pave the way for the emergence of a completely democratic government in the next generation as the demos understood their power. The Athenians' newfound freedom and self-governance made them particularly hostile to the return of Hippias' tyranny, or any other form of outside subjugation, whether by Sparta, Persia, or anyone else.

Cleomenes was enraged by the events and led the Spartan army towards Athens. Cleomenes' attempts to restore Isagoras to Athens failed, but the Athenians had already sent an embassy to Artaphernes in Sardis, requesting assistance from the Persian empire, expecting the worst. The Athenian emissaries agreed to Artaphernes' request that the Athenians send him a 'earth and water,' a traditional gesture of submission. When they returned to Athens, they were harshly chastised for it. Cleomenes later plotted to restore Hippias to his position as ruler of Athens. Hippias escaped to Sardis once more, this time to encourage the Persians to conquer Athens. The Athenians sent messengers to Artaphernes to persuade him not to take action, but Artaphernes instead told them to return Hippias as a tyrant. Indignantly, the Athenians refused, instead deciding to declare war on Persia. As a result of being Persia's enemy, Athens was already in a position to aid the Ionian cities in their insurrection. The fact that the Ionian democracies were inspired by the Athenians' example no probably convinced the Athenians to back the Ionian Revolt, especially since the towns of Ionia were once Athenian colonies.

To aid the insurrection, the Athenians and Eretrians dispatched a task force of 25 triremes to Asia Minor. During this time, the Greek army ambushed and outmanoeuvred Artaphernes, moving to Sardis and torching the lower city. The Greeks, however, were repulsed and driven back to the coast by Persian cavalry, losing many soldiers in the process. Despite the fact that their actions were eventually futile, the Eretrians, particularly the Athenians, had earned Darius' eternal hatred, and he promised to punish both towns. The Persian naval victory in the Battle of Lade (494 BC) effectively ended the Ionian Revolt, and by 493 BC, the Persian fleet had defeated the last holdouts. Darius took advantage of the insurrection to expand the empire's borders to include the islands of the eastern Aegean and the Propontis, which had previously been outside of Persian control. The Persians were able to plot their next actions after pacifying Ionia, which included eliminating the danger from Greece and punishing Athens and Eretria.

After the Ionian Revolt was eventually subdued in 492 BC, Darius launched an expedition to Greece, led by his son-in-law Mardonius. Thrace was re-subjugated by Mardonius, and Macedonia was constituted a totally subordinate component of the Persians; they had been vassals of the Persians since the late 6th century BC, but had preserved their general autonomy. However, his fleet was destroyed by a strong storm not long after, bringing the war to a premature conclusion. After the previous campaign's success, Darius decided to dispatch a marine expedition led by Artaphernes (son of the satrap to whom Hippias had fled) and Datis, a Median admiral, in 490 BC. After being injured in the previous campaign, Mardonius had fallen out of favor. The expedition's goal was to bring the Cyclades into the Persian empire, punish Naxos for resisting a Persian invasion in 499 BC, and then go to Greece to force Eretria and Athens to submit to Darius or be destroyed. The Persian task force arrived off the coast of Euboea in mid-summer after island-hopping across the Aegean and successfully conquering Naxos. After that, the Persians besieged, captured, and burned Eretria. They then proceeded south down the coast of Attica in order to achieve the campaign's final goal: to punish Athens.


On the suggestion of the exiled Athenian tyrant Hippias, the Persians sailed down the coast of Attica and landed in the harbour of Marathon, some 27 kilometers (17 miles) northeast of Athens (who had accompanied the expedition). The Athenian army marched fast to block the two exits from the plain of Marathon and prevent the Persians from going inward, led by Miltiades, the Athenian general with the most experience battling the Persians. At the same time, Pheidippides (or Philippides, according to other versions) had been dispatched to Sparta to request that the Spartan army march to Athens' help. Pheidippides arrived during the Carneia festival, a sacred period of calm, and was told that the Spartan army could not march to war until the full moon rose, and that Athens would have to wait at least ten days for reinforcements. For the time being, the Athenians would have to hold out at Marathon, bolstered by a full muster of 1,000 hoplites from the little city of Plataea, a gesture that did much to calm the Athenians' worries and earned Plataea eternal Athenian gratitude.

As a result, the armies faced one other in a stalemate across the plain of Marathon for around five days. The Athenian camp's flanks were secured by a grove of trees or an abbatis of posts (depending on the exact reading). The Athenians benefited from the delay because each day brought the Spartans closer to their goal. Miltiades was one of ten Athenian strategoi (generals) elected by each of the ten tribes that the Athenians were divided into at Marathon. Callimachus, the War-Archon (polemarch) who had been elected by the entire citizen assembly, was also in command. According to Herodotus, command was rotated between the strategoi, with each taking a day to command the army. He further claims that on his day in power, each strategos deferred to Miltiades. Miltiades, according to Herodotus, is eager to fight the Persians (despite the fact that the Spartans are on their way to help the Athenians), but he waits until his official day of command to do so. This paragraph is unquestionably questionable; the Athenians had no incentive to assault before the Spartans arrived, and there is no genuine proof of the generalship rotating. However, there appears to have been a gap between the Athenian arrival at Marathon and the combat; Herodotus, who clearly believed Miltiades was eager to assault, may have made a mistake in attempting to explain this delay.

The reason for the delay, as mentioned below, was most likely that neither the Athenians nor the Persians were willing to risk fighting at first. This begs the question of why the conflict took place at the time it did. The Greeks attacked the Persians, as Herodotus explicitly states (and other sources affirm), but it is unclear why they did so before the Spartans arrived. There are two basic explanations for this.

The first explanation holds that the Persian cavalry withdrew from Marathon for an unknown cause, and the Greeks took advantage of this by attacking. The absence of cavalry in Herodotus' account of the conflict, as well as an item in the Suda dictionary, support this view. The entry v ("without cavalry") is described as follows:

The cavalry left. When Datis surrendered and was ready for retreat, the Ionians climbed the trees and gave the Athenians the signal that the cavalry had left. And when Miltiades realized that, he attacked and thus won. From there comes the above-mentioned quote, which is used when someone breaks ranks before battle.

The cavalry were completing the time-consuming process of re-embarking on the ships, and were to be transported by sea to assault (undefended) Athens in the rear, while the rest of the Persian force trapped down the Athenian army at Marathon, according to one theory. This idea relies on Herodotus' claim that the Persian army began to re-embark after Marathon, aiming to sail around Cape Sounion and assault Athens directly. As a result, this re-embarkation would have taken place prior to the combat (and indeed have triggered the battle).

The second theory is that the Persians ultimately moved to assault the Athenians, which led to the conflict. Although this version shows the Persians going on the strategic offensive, it can be reconciled with the classic narrative of the Athenians attacking the Persians by supposing that the Athenians went on the tactical offensive when they saw the Persians approaching and attacked them. Obviously, it is impossible to determine which theory (if either) is accurate. Both theories, however, imply that some kind of Persian activity occurred on or around the fifth day, which ultimately led to the battle. It's also possible that both stories are correct: when the Persians dispatched their cavalry to attack Athens by ship, they sent their soldiers to attack Marathon at the same time, prompting the Greek counterattack.

Date of the Battle

For various events, Herodotus provides a date in the lunisolar calendar, of which each Greek city-state had its own variety. We can calculate an absolute date in the proleptic Julian calendar, which is widely employed by historians as the chronological frame, using astronomical computation. Philipp August Böckh concluded in 1855 that the fight occurred on September 12, 490 BC, according to the Julian calendar, which is the widely accepted date. This, however, is contingent on when the Spartans conducted their festival, and it's plausible that the Spartan calendar was one month ahead of Athens'. The fight took occurred on August 12, 490 BC in that circumstance.

Opposing Forces


The size of the Athenian army is not specified by Herodotus. According to Cornelius Nepos, Pausanias, and Plutarch, there were 9,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans, but Justin claims there were 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans. These figures are very similar to the amount of troops the Athenians and Plataeans sent to the Battle of Plataea 11 years later, according to Herodotus. Pausanias noted the names of former slaves who were liberated in exchange for military service on the battle memorial. These figures are largely accepted by modern historians as reasonable. At the time of Marathon and Plataea, the lands administered by Athens (Attica) had a population of 315,000, including slaves, implying that the complete Athenian army numbered around 3% of the population.


According to Herodotus, the fleet sent by Darius consisted of 600 triremes. Herodotus does not estimate the size of the Persian army, only saying that they were a "large infantry that was well packed". Among ancient sources, the poet Simonides, another near-contemporary, says the campaign force numbered 200,000; while a later writer, the Roman Cornelius Nepos estimates 200,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, of which only 100,000 fought in the battle, while the rest were loaded into the fleet that was rounding Cape Sounion; Plutarch and Pausanias both independently give 300,000, as does the Suda dictionary. Plato and Lysias give 500,000; and Justinus 600,000.

Modern historians have proposed wide-ranging numbers for the infantry, from 20,000 to 100,000 with a consensus of perhaps 25,000; estimates for the cavalry are in the range of 1,000.

The fleet included various contingents from different parts of the Achaemenid Empire, particularly Ionians and Aeolians, although they are not mentioned as participating directly to the battle and may have remained on the ships:

Datis sailed with his army against Eretria first, taking with him Ionians and Aeolians.

— Herodotus 6.98.

Regarding the ethnicities involved in the battle, Herodotus specifically mentions the presence of the Persians and the Sakae at the center of the Achaemenid line:

They fought a long time at Marathon. In the center of the line the foreigners prevailed, where the Persians and Sacae were arrayed. The foreigners prevailed there and broke through in pursuit inland, but on each wing the Athenians and Plataeans prevailed. In victory they let the routed foreigners flee, and brought the wings together to fight those who had broken through the center. The Athenians prevailed, then followed the fleeing Persians and struck them down. When they reached the sea they demanded fire and laid hold of the Persian ships.
— Herodotus 6.113.

Strategic and Tactical Considerations

In terms of strategy, the Athenians were at a disadvantage at Marathon. The Athenians had to assemble all available hoplites in order to engage the Persians in battle; even so, they were likely outmanned by at least two to one. Furthermore, by raising such a vast army, Athens had been stripped of its defenders, and any secondary attack in the Athenian rear would cut the army off from the city, while any direct attack on the city would be undefended. Furthermore, a loss at Marathon would spell the end of Athens, as no other Athenian army existed. The Athenian aim was to keep the Persian army locked down at Marathon, blocking both exits from the plain and therefore preventing outmaneuvering. However, some positives outweighed the downsides. The Athenians had no need to fight at first because they had managed to limit the Persians to the Marathon plain. Furthermore, time was on their side, as each passing day pushed the Spartans closer. The Athenians remained on the defensive in the run-up to the fight, having everything to lose by attacking and much to gain by waiting. Tactically, hoplites were vulnerable to horse attacks, and since the Persians had a large cavalry force, any aggressive action by the Athenians was made considerably riskier, reinforcing the Athenians' defensive approach.

On the other hand, tactical reasons were most likely the driving force for the Persian approach. The Persian soldiers were clearly under-armoured and no match for the hoplites in a direct fight (as would be demonstrated at the later battles of Thermopylae and Plataea.) Because the Athenians appear to have taken up a strong defensive posture at Marathon, the Persian hesitancy was most likely due to a fear of attacking the Athenians directly. The Athenians' camp was near the plain of Marathon, on a spur of Mount Agrieliki; the remains of its defenses may still be seen.

Whatever incident precipitated the fight, it clearly shifted the strategic or tactical balance in the Athenians' favor, prompting them to attack the Persians. If the first explanation (see above) is right, the lack of cavalry removed the fundamental Athenian tactical disadvantage, and the threat of being outflanked made it necessary to assault. If the second theory is right, the Athenians were simply defending themselves against the Persians. A static defensive position would have made little sense for the Athenians, given the Persian force's clear high proportion of missile men; the power of the hoplite was in the melee, and the sooner that could be brought about, the better, from the Athenian point of view. If the second theory is right, it begs the question of why the Persians invaded after deliberating for several days. There could have been a number of strategic reasons for this; for example, they might have known (or assumed) that the Athenians were anticipating reinforcements. Alternatively, they may have felt compelled to force a victory because they couldn't possibly stay at Marathon indefinitely.


First Phase: The Two Armies form Their Lines

At the scene of combat, the gap between the two armies had shrunk to "not less than 8 stadia," or around 1,500 meters. Miltiades ordered the two tribes in the middle of the Greek formation, Themistocles' Leontis and Aristides' Antiochis, to be deployed in four ranks deep, while the remainder of the tribes on their wings were arranged in eight ranks deep. Some later observers believe this was done on purpose to encourage a double encirclement of the Persian capital. This, however, requires a level of training that the Greeks are supposed to lack. Until the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, there is little indication of tactical reasoning in Greek conflicts. It's probable that this configuration was made at the last minute to ensure that the Athenian line would be as long as the Persian line and therefore would not be outflanked.

Second Phase: The Greeks Attack and The Lines Make Contact

Miltiades gave the basic signal to advance when the Athenian line was ready, according to one source: "At them." Herodotus claims that the Athenians ran the entire distance to the Persian lines, a feat considered physically impossible under the weight of hoplite armor. More than likely, they marched until they approached the "beaten zone," or the limit of the archers' efficacy (about 200 meters), and then broke into a sprint towards their adversary. Another option is that they ran in broken columns up to the 200-meter mark, then reassembled for the march into battle. According to Herodotus, this was the first occasion a Greek army entered battle in this manner; this was most likely due to the fact that it was the first time a Greek army confronted an enemy formed largely of missile men. "... in their hearts they charged the Athenians with madness which must prove fatal, considering that they were few and yet were pressing forth at a run, having neither cavalry nor archers," according to the Persians. Indeed, the Persians may be forgiven for this based on their prior encounters with Greeks; Herodotus claims that the Athenians at Marathon were "the first to tolerate looking at Median garb and men wearing it, for up until then even hearing the name of the Medes caused the Hellenes to panic." The Greek line finally made touch with the enemy army after passing through a barrage of arrows unleashed by the Persian army, which was mostly covered by their armour.

Third Phase: The Greek Center is Pushed Back

They fought a long time at Marathon. In the center of the line the foreigners prevailed, where the Persians and Sacae were arrayed. The foreigners prevailed there and broke through in pursuit inland, but on each wing the Athenians and Plataeans prevailed.

— Herodotus

Fourth Phase: The Persian Wings Collapse

The Athenian wings quickly routed the inferior Persian levies on the flanks, before turning inwards to surround the Persian centre, which had been more successful against the thin Greek centre.

Fifth Phase: The Persians are Routed and Retreat to Their Ships

The conflict came to an end when the Persian center fled in terror towards their ships, which were being followed by the Greeks. Unaware of the terrain, several fled to the wetlands, where an unknown number of people drowned. The Athenians pursued the Persians back to their ships, capturing seven of them, however the majority were able to sail away. Cynaegirus, brother of the poet Aeschylus, who was also among the combatants, charged into the sea, grabbed one Persian trireme, and began pushing it towards shore, according to Herodotus. Cynaegirus perished after a member of the crew saw him and hacked off his hand.

On the battlefield, Herodotus recorded 6,400 Persian bodies, and it is unknown how many more perished in the wetlands. He also said the Athenians had lost 192 men and the Plataeans had lost 11. The war archon Callimachus and the general Stesilaos were among the slain.


The Greek success can be explained in numerous ways. The Greeks, according to most experts, had superior equipment and tactics. The Greeks, according to Herodotus, were better equipped. At the period, they used leather or linen upper body armour rather than bronze. Because the hoplites had a long history of hand-to-hand battle, and the Persian warriors were used to a quite different style of conflict, the phalanx structure worked well. The Athenians weakened their center at Marathon to make their army equal in length to the Persian army, not as a tactical maneuver. The Persian center, recognizing that their wings had broken, attempted to return, but was caught in the flanks by the triumphant Greek wings. The ultimate reason for the Greeks' triumph, according to Lazenby (1993), was their courage:

When the arrows started falling, ordinary, amateur troops found the bravery to burst into a trot instead of grinding to a halt, and when the enemy wings retreated, they did not take the easy way out and follow them, but instead stopped and came to the aid of the hard-pressed center.

The Persian defeat is explained by the "total failure... to field a representative army," according to Vic Hurley, who calls the fight the "most persuasive" illustration of infantry-inability bowmen's to maintain any position if stationed in close quarters and unsupported (i.e. by fortifications, or failing to support them by cavalry and chariots, as was the common Persian tactic).


According to Herodotus, the Persian fleet sailed around Cape Sounion shortly after the fight to attack Athens directly. Some recent historians locate this attempt immediately before the fight, as mentioned above. In any case, the Athenians apparently realized that their city was still under siege and marched back to Athens as swiftly as possible. Under Aristides' direction, the two tribes in the center of the Athenian line remained to secure the battlefield. The Athenians arrived just in time to prevent the Persians from securing a landing, and the Persians turned around and retreated to Asia, realizing they had missed their chance. In connection with this story, Herodotus mentions a rumor that the Persians arranged this maneuver with the Alcmaeonids, a prominent Athenian noble family, and that after the battle, a "shield-signal" was delivered. Although numerous interpretations have been proposed, it is impossible to know whether or not this is correct, and if so, what the signal indicated. The Spartan army landed at Marathon the next day, having traveled 220 kilometers (140 miles) in only three days. The Spartans surveyed the Marathon battlefield and agreed that the Athenians had triumphed spectacularly.

The Athenian and Plataean dead of Marathon were buried on the battlefield in two tumuli. On the tomb of the Athenians this epigram composed by Simonides was written:

    Ἑλλήνων προμαχοῦντες Ἀθηναῖοι Μαραθῶνι
    χρυσοφόρων Μήδων ἐστόρεσαν δύναμιν

    Fighting at the forefront of the Greeks, the Athenians at Marathon
    laid low the army of the gilded Medes.

Meanwhile, Darius began raising a huge new army with which he meant to completely subjugate Greece; however, in 486 BC, his Egyptian subjects revolted, indefinitely postponing any Greek expedition. Darius then died whilst preparing to march on Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I. Xerxes crushed the Egyptian revolt, and very quickly restarted the preparations for the invasion of Greece. The epic second Persian invasion of Greece finally began in 480 BC, and the Persians met with initial success at the battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium. However, defeat at the Battle of Salamis would be the turning point in the campaign, and the next year the expedition was ended by the decisive Greek victory at the Battle of Plataea.