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The Battle of Marathon - Part One of Two

Updated on May 31, 2017
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Battle of Marathon, 490 BC - Initial situation
Battle of Marathon, 490 BC - Initial situation | Source

Battle of Marathon 1

Battle of Marathon 2

Battle of Marathon 3

Between 490 BC and 479 BC, the Persians were the super-power of the ancient world. The two Persian kings during this period, Darius and Xerxes, would amass an army the size of which the ancient world had never witnessed. Their insatiable quest for power, glory, and revenge would begin during the Ionian revolt, and would ultimately lead them to the plains of Marathon where they would meet their first defeat at the hands of the Athenians. This defeat, along with later actions at Thermopylae, Artemision, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale, would produce a short-lived unity among the Greeks. The Battle of Marathon was the catalyst of this unity and the stepping-stone for Greek civilization to flourish as a free democracy, which would be the foundations of Western Civilization.

Greece at this point in history was not a unified country. It was broken into various “city-states” that had their own set of laws, their own culture and own language. In 491 BC the Persian king, Darius, would send envoys to the mainland of Greece to require these city-states to succumb to his rule and to offer symbolic gifts of “earth and water” to the Great King. While many in the northern regions of Greece did indeed give into Darius’ demands, the city-states of Athens and Sparta, the two largest, refused. The envoys to Athens were tossed into a pit reserved for criminals. While the requirement of submission was of great concern, equally the Athenians were concerned that the exiled tyrant, Hippias, had aligned himself with the Persians and served as an adviser and guide to the Persians with the intent of regaining his rule over Athens. Hippias, who assumed the leadership role upon the death of his father, Peisistratus, was initially a fair ruler. However, upon the murder of his brother Hipparchus, he turned cruel, violent and oppressive. The Athenians would bribe the priestess of the oracle at Delphi to enlist the help of the Spartans to depose Hippias. They were successful and exiled Hippias to Sigeum, a town near the Hellespont. As the guide for the Persians, Hippias suggested that they land the Persian army at the Bay of Marathon along the eastern coast of Attika. Hippias believed he would receive a warm welcome from the people of this section of Attika, as they were supportive of his father’s rule. Since the exile of Hippias, democracy in Athens had grown under the leadership of a well-respected aristocrat named Pisistratus, and the Athenians had no desire to see tyrannical rule once again regain control over Athens. While Darius’ call for submission would be a major concern for the Athenians, but the potential of Hippias’ return to oppressive power as a puppet leader of Persia would be the deciding factor in prompting the Athenians to fight.

The Battle of Marathon
The Battle of Marathon

The Athenians would field an army of about 9,000 hoplites, heavily armed citizen-soldiers of Greece, along with another 600 men from nearby Plataea, but were significantly outnumbered by the Persian army. This would, according to Herodotus, create an equal divide among the Athenian generals, some choosing to fight at once, the others concerned about fighting while being so heavily outnumbered. Herodotus also states that one of the generals, Miltiades, would persuade Callimachus, who held the position of polemarchon, or “commander-in-chief”, to vote for in favor of immediate attack on the grounds that waiting longer would ensure a Persian victory and Greek enslavement. Miltiades also believed that further delay would cause dissention among the Athenian troops and with the presence of Hippias among the Persian ranks, the real potential for defection was present. Callimachus’ vote would break the disunity of the Athenian generals.

The Athenians also knew prior to leaving Athens for Marathon that they were outnumbered significantly and with that knowledge they had sent a herald, Phidippides, to run to Sparta to enlist the assistance of the Spartans. Upon his arrival, Phidippides delivered the message calling for aid and was sent back with the message that the Spartans would indeed render assistance, but only after the next full moon, which was in accordance with Spartan religious belief, which was still six days away. The Spartans would hold true to their word and would march with such haste that they would arrive just three days after their departure. Unfortunately, they would not arrive at Marathon until after the battle had already ended.

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