On or around Sept. 12, 490 B.C., an Athenian army, supplemented by a handful of their Plataean allies, defeated and turned back a much larger Persian force at the battle of Marathon, setting the stage for the Greco-Persian Wars.
By the dawn of the 5th century B.C., the Persian empire was the largest in the world, stretching from Egypt throughout central Asia and almost to India. Local revolts against the authority of the king occurred frequently. The king and his army would finish putting down a revolt in one part of the empire when another would rise up. The king's business in the Persian empire was largely one of maintaining his authority. The massive Persian army, made up largely of slave conscripts, succeeded against the rebels every time.
The Ionian coast of Asia Minor lay at the extreme edge of the Persian empire, in what is today western Turkey. The settlements there were largely Greek, though had been dominated by the Persians for a half century. In 499 B.C., the Greeks of the Ionian coast revolted against their Persian masters.
Knowing it would be a hard fight, they asked their fellow Greeks across the Aegean Sea for assistance. Athens, with its newly formed democracy, sent ships and soon the revolutionaries and their Athenian allies sacked the provincial Persian capital, Sardis. The Persian king, Darius I, seethed with anger that foreigners would dare interfere in what he saw as an internal matter of the empire. He vowed revenge.
The Persians put down the Ionian revolt in 493 B.C. and soon prepared to punish Athens. The following year, a Persian fleet sailed with the intention of invading Attica, the territory of Athens. A storm severely damaged the fleet, however, and the invasion was temporarily called off. In 490 B.C., another fleet was assembled and once again Athens was the target.
Aware of the impending invasion, the Athenians attempted to rally the rest of Greece to their cause, warning that if Athens fell to the Persians, the rest of Greece would soon follow. Many of the other Greek states refused to send help, believing that if they took no action the Persians would leave them alone. Others had been bribed by the Persians to stay out of the fight.
Sparta, the greatest military power of the day, refused to send aid because it conflicted with their religious celebrations. Only the Plataeans sent hoplite soldiers or infantryman.
This chief source for the battle is Herodotus, famously unreliable in some aspects of his histories, though often the only primary source extant. He tells us that the Palataeans sent roughly 1,000 men to augment the Athenians 10,000 hoplites. Modern estimates vary for Persian numbers, with some suggesting as many as 100,000 men, and others offering the more probable number of 25,000-35,000.
The Greeks were led by a council of generals, which included the former Tyrant (a title that held no pejorative connotation in the Greek world — simply meaning a ruler) Miltiades, who had ruled Greek colonies along what is today the Gallipoli peninsula. Miltiades' country had been overrun by the Persians, and he had served Darius as a vassal and military commander for years before defecting to the Athenians.
Admiral Datis, a military favorite of Darius, led the Persian invasion. One of Datis' most powerful weapons was the Persian purse. The seemingly infinite Persian coffers allowed the empire to bribe its enemies into submission. When Datis landed his force upon the beaches at the Bay of Marathon, they saw the Athenian battle line waiting for them, and Datis almost certainly attempted bribery. Certainly a fat wallet and comfortable life were preferable to death at the hands of the vast Persian war machine now disembarking, Datis must have concluded.
In historian Tom Holland's essay, “From Persia with Love,” he wrote: “The Athenian army that confronted the invaders on the plain of Marathon, blocking the road that led to their city some 20 miles to the south, did not disintegrate. True, Athens had long been perfervid with rumors of fifth columnists and profiteers from the Great King's gold, but it was precisely the Athenians' awareness of the consequent peril that had prompted them to march out from behind their city's walls in the first place. The battle line at Marathon, in short, could not be bought.”
Geography appeared to favor the defenders. The landing beach rose into higher grasslands, which funneled up toward higher hills, flanked by hills on each side. The Athenian line blocked the Persian advance, and it was hoped that the bottleneck would not allow the Persians to bring their greater numbers to bear, nor allow the Athenians to be flanked by cavalry. If a fight was going to take place on anything approaching even odds, Marathon was the place to do it.
Still, some of the Athenian generals advocated pulling back toward the city, but most, led by Miltiades, called for standing their ground. So forceful were Miltiades arguments, that the other generals deferred to his command. Herodotus noted the former Tyrant's strategy:
“On this occasion, however, when the Athenians were being drawn up at Marathon, something of this kind was done: Their army being made equal in length of the front to that of the Medes (Persians), came to be drawn up in the middle with a depth of but a few ranks and here their army was weakest, while each wing was strengthened with numbers.”
Miltiades laid a trap for the Persians. By making his center weak, he invited the Persians to charge the middle of his line, hoping to break it. However, the hoplites on the Athenian right and left flanks were stronger. Once the Persians crashed into the Athenian center, Miltiades gave the order for the hoplites on the flanks to charge the over-extended Persian line, suddenly engaging it on three sides. Eventually, the Persian line broke, and the invading soldiers ran back to their ships.
Miltiades was not done, and took the fight to their ships. Kynegeiros, an Athenian solider so caught up in the adrenaline of the fight, actually jumped up and grabbed at an “ornament” of a Persian ship, presumably to keep it from sailing, “and had his hand cut off with an axe and fell.”
Datis no doubt watched in horror as his hopes for victory faded. Fearing the wrath of his king, and not yet willing to concede defeat, the Persian admiral prepared to sail his ships around Attica and attack Athens directly, before it could be reinforced by Miltiades. The Athenians, exhausted from a day of hard fighting, had another challenge. Miltiades ordered them to march south to Athens, over 20 miles away, and prepare for another fight to defend the city.
Datis' fleet took its time reaching Athens, perhaps dealing with unfavorable winds. They arrived to find Miltiades' troops standing proud, ready to defend their city once again. Disheartened, Datis ordered the fleet home. The Athenians had won the battle and saved all of Greece from Persian domination.
Their religious holiday over, a Spartan army of 2,000 hoplites arrived just after the battle had been fought. Herodotus wrote: “Though they had come too late for the battle, yet they desired to behold the Medes; and accordingly they went on to Marathon and looked at the bodies of the slain: Then afterwards they departed home, commending the Athenians and the work which they had done.”
The Persians returned 10 years later and were again defeated. Nearly a century after the battle of Marathon, the end of the Peloponnesian War saw Athens defeated, not at the hands of the Persians, but by the Spartans. When Sparta's allies demanded that the city of Athens be destroyed and all its citizens made slaves, the Spartans refused. They remembered that it had been the Athens who had saved the Greek world at Marathon, and the gods detested ingratitude.