Ars Bellica

Battle of Marathon

490 BC

In a small flat area, overlooking the sea, was fight one of the battles-symbol of the european history that will remain forever in the collective memory.


The characters


Athenian general and statesman (550-489 BC), consolidate his personal control on the Chersonese in 518 BC, which had been commissioned to pacify. He joined then the revolt of the Ionian cities against Persia but had to repair in Athens after the persian reaction that destroyed the rebellious cities.

After 494, the year of his re-entry in Athens, Miltiades was elected strategos (489/490), in anticipation of the incoming persian invasion. His knowledge of persian tactics was deciding in the greek victory over the persians at Marathon (490). Assumed the command of a fleet of 70 ships, he undertook an expedition to free the Cyclades islands from the persians. The island of Paros was the first under siege. Its conquest would act as a springboard to occupy Naxos in hegemonic and shutter key. But once returned home, due to a bad wound, Mitiades was sentenced to pay a fine of 50 talents and, on charges of treason, was sentenced to prison where he died.


Hipparchus's son and brother of Pisistratus, tyrant of Athens was from 528 b.c. until 511 BC. He succeeded his father, together with his brother, as the real owner fo the power in the greek town. He ever ruled with mildness, but the killing of his brother, in the attack of Harmodius and Argistone (514), pushed him to toughen his regime.

When Athens was occupied in 510 by the Alcmaeonidae (a powerful noble family of ancient Athens, claiming to be descended from the mythological Alcmaeon, the grandson of Nestor), Hippias was forced to escape and fled to the Court of Darius of Persia, alongside which fought in 490 BC to Marathon.


The battlefield and the myth

On 10 August of the year 490 BC, in a small plateau overlooking the sea, near a village at 40 kilometres from Athens, was fight a symbolic battle of the european and western history. The name of the village has remained and will remain forever in the collective memory of this continent, even far beyond the real value they had the facts. The name of this village is Marathon.

It was there, in that little valley, closed on one side by the beach and the Aegean sea from three sides by rugged hills of Attica, that a small force of athenian hoplites with a small contingent of plataeans allies defeated, freezing the expansion, the persian army of king Darius the great, who had to cross the sea with his fleet to punish the hubris of those "pesky" greek cities.

As we'll see later, the battle itself was not a big deal, about 10,000 greeks defeated in an hour the approximately 30,000 persians, coming from various ethnic groups, as usual, under the command of general Artaphernes. What makes this battle so important in the history, at the point that it recall as a common element of intellectual imagination of a continent?

Certainly the myth of the small army of free citizens -even if we must be really careful using the word "freedom" in the city of Athens- fighting a larger army, payed by a tyrant, to defend freedom has fascinated generations of men. And the rhetoric of small group disciplined, that with the strength of courage defeats an immense horde, represents an archetype, ever present in the culture, not just military, of the West. Perhaps the key term of this reflection lies in the word West, understood in the sense of the things that we know, as opposed to another, the East in this case, alien and therefore dangerous. And it's probably in this occasion that combat mode "impactor" typically Western, was born.

The formations of hoplites, resolved to fix everything in a single battle, which launches "running" against the persians and setting a combat type, close and determined, which let the Darius's generals that they had to do with crazy Hellenes; this would represent the rise of that ideological scheme of all western Europe, which combines pitched battle, total war and decisive momentum, which would become, in later centuries, the founding superstructure of military success.

Without generalize, probably, there's no doubt that the events of that August 10, in the plain of Marathon, have created an epos in where we can found origins of our way of thinking and acting, as if are derived to some extent from those 10,000 hoplites that, running, lash out against an enemy almost unknown.


To the first greek-persian war

The reasons and perhaps the necessity for the persian wars must be sought in Ionia, namely in the area of ancient greek colonization that includes the coasts of Anatolian peninsula and the islands in the Aegean sea, almost seem to form a bridge between Asia and the coasts of Greece. Through this bridge the greek colonists had reached the shores of Asia minor and, since the end of the 8th century, recreating the political structure of the native city, had founded numerous colonies, taking advantage of the bays and natural ports along the coast of Asia minor offered them.

Although politically completely independent, the Asian colonies maintained strong links with the mother cities and, especially, retained a strong awareness of their "hellenicity", which allowed them to feel full part of the political and cultural koinè who spoke in greek.

The cities of asian coast, Phocaea, Ephesus, Miletus and islands like Samos, had quickly enriched by exploiting the rich and fertile soil as well as the commercial position, we must remember that the Mediterranean outlets caravan routes from the East. From the 6th century, however, the cities of Ionia had to suffer the attentions, or rather the mire, of near and powerful persian Empire.

The Orientals, their huge military superiority, managed to install, forcefully and sometimes trick, tyrants under their control in all cities, which, although still part of an Ionian League formally independent, were subject to the authority of the Satrap (the Governor) of Sardis, that were forced to pay a heavy toll each year.

The situation was unstable, given that citizens badly bore the hegemony of tyrants subjected to the power of a "barbarian", as they considered the great King. The chain of events, that bring to the plain of Marathon, started in 499 BC, when Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus hitherto docile friend of Persians, proclaimed in his hometown the isonomia (equality before the law) by encouraging a revolt against Artaphernes, satrap of Sardis. The insurrection spread to many cities and regions of the Anatolian coast. The Ionian League seemed to regain strength and, in anticipation of an inevitable persian reaction, appealed three mother cities on the continent.

Athens and Eretria were the only greek cities to respond to the appeal, sending to the League's forces twenty triremes with hoplites from Athens and five from Eretria. The victory seemed, at first, eventually led to the insurgents, fleeing a Phoenician Squadron. So, in 498, the greeks directed a daring and resolute against the capital of the satrapy, Sardi, that they seized and burned, without taking possession of its Citadel.

The military victory, if on the one hand raised the enthusiasm of the ions, had also a strong downside. The great king Darius sworn to pay back this humiliation at those defiant greeks and move towards the coasts of Asia minor a large army. The fortunes of war changed soon. After a defeat at Ephesus, the athenians, in haste, and also for domestic political problems, left the League, thus the rebellion soon turned into a disaster.

In 494, the persians took Miletus sacking and selling all the inhabitants as slaves; shortly after, the greek fleet suffered a final defeat in the Aegean. After an initial phase in which it seemed that Darius was planning to use a real policy of terror, to the ionian cities were concessed relatively mild conditions, granted by the King that process and execute, if delivered to him, only political and military leaders who had promoted the rebellion.

But the terrible punishment of Miletus, that was, until then, the most prestigious centre of the whole greek world, mobilized the souls against the persian menace: even Athens, despite his proud spirit of independence, following the warnings of Miltiades and Themistocles, deemed necessary to emerge from its isolation and joined the Peloponnesian Simmachia (491 BC).

For his part Darius had not forgotten the humiliation received, so moved by the desire to punish Athens and Eretria, and convinced that the subjugation of the poleis of Asia minor would be safe only when the Persian domination had also extended to Greece, he prepared actually to war. To strengthen its military position sent in Thrace an army under the command of Mardonius to steal Tasos and its silver mines, nearing the border between the greek world and his empire. From that moment on, his eye was fixed on the cities of mainland Greece, so Athens and Eretria on all, realized that they are now at the forefront. Without the shield represented by the Ionian cities, the Athenians would soon repent of the manner in which they had abandoned to their fate Miletus. The war between persian Empire and the Greece was now cloe and inevitable.


The Armies

The greek phalanx

Straddling the centuries XI and VIII, in the nascent State-cities of Greece, we see the passage from the heroic combat style to the organized hoplite phalanx.

The cause of this transformation, according to historians, was the evolution of panoply, i.e. the set of offensive and defensive weapons. All equipment used, round shield, oplon, oak wood covered with two-handed bronze, the first bronze corset then pressed linen, the Corinthian helmet, bronze greaves and long spear in ash, needed to be fully exploited, the discipline of closed deployment.

The hoplite phalanx deployed on the field with a heavily armoured infantry formation, united shoulder-to-shoulder and hiding behind large shields, spread over several files. The heaviness of the panoply made hoplites slow in all movementes so clashes were composed of a laborious approach followed by a brief charge which ended in a head-on collision, after which the hoplites of the rows behind supporting the shield on teammates backs to push them forward in an attempt to overwhelm the enemy.

The persian army

The persian army, composed of contingents of ethnicity, culture, language and very different military technique, was the perfect image of the Empire who defended, mirroring its strengths and weakness. The foundations of the army consisted of a professional infantry, good quality, recruited among the persian populations and mede Empire. To this, is added the quotas of other peoples coming from all persians domains, in their own costumes and their own fighting traditions. The main weapons were the bow, whose use in Persia was widespread in all layers of the population even as hunting tool, and the light javelin, while the protection was provided by a kind of armor, sometimes just a simple dress, and a lightweight wicker shield, sometimes.

Even the heavy cavalry was of good quality, since the persians or elamites were formed by landowning aristocracy. Armed with Javelin and bow, the persian cavalry, which Darius sent in Greece a very little part, was probably the most effective weapon.


The antecedents

After the suppression of the revolt in Ionia, the expansionist policy of the persians fixed its eyes on the mainland Greece. In fact the great king and emperor Darius considered each and every country of the world known as something belonged of right to him, moreover, considering the persian Empire as an extension of God's earthly good Ahura-Mazda, he couldn't conceive a policy of equality and dialogue. For this, trusting in the strength of the Empire and facilitated by the strategic scenario that was configured after the destruction of the ionian fleet and conquests in Thrace of Mardonius, Dario devoted himself to organizing a fleet that was able to ensure the support and carry a large expeditionary force.

Actually the persians undervalued the strength of greek cities and did not comprehend the complex internal political dialectics in the polis, and between the other poleis: that was the basis of inter-State relations in Greece. Darius, having reconstructed for the second time its fleet, destroyed in 492 by a great storm in the Aegean, had devised a simple and aggressive plan. Moving from Cilicia, persian forces were supposed to fall on the city of Eretria and Athens and, once destroyed these, submit all Greece, that will became a satrapy of the great european Empire. Especially for Athens, Darius had a perfect solution: Hippias, ousted from power and exiled by the Athenians, was aboard the persian fleet which moved war on his country.

In the meantime Athens was preparing to clash the inevitable. In 493 had been elected the democratic and noble Themistocles that immediately begin a series of fortifications to the port of Piraeus to provide it with strong defenses and make the military port of the city. Themistocles also started the construction of a fleet of war, whose staff would have been formed largely by the lower classes of athenian society, the teti. The chance for the latter, the sailors of the fleet, to have greater weight in political decisions provoked the reaction of the aristocracy, which called home the former Chersonese tyrant Miltiades, whence he had been expelled from the persian advance in Thrace. Miltiades became strategos in 490 BC, when Darius and the persian fleet were sailing toward the shores of Greece under the command of his nephew Artaphernes and general Dati.

Without a real opposition at sea, as the athenian fleet was still under construction, the persians were able to easily subdue the aegean Islands and landed in Euboea, in front of Eretria which was placed under siege by Artaphernes. The small town had no chance to resist the imperial Army, once taken was razed and all its inhabitants were enslaved. After that, the persian fleet crossed the stretch between Evia and Attica and voiced the Cape Sounion, landed in the Bay of Marathon, about forty kilometers from Athens. The athenians were terrified. Tradition report as the famous Phidippide tha after the battle made the famous race to announce the victory to the city, was sent to Sparta asking for help, but the spartans delayed setting out, saying not to move before the end of their religious celebration. Meanwhile, Miltiades, arrived at Marathon, dployed his troops in the hills at west of the plains, with the right flank close to the sea, to cut the road to Athens to the persians.


The forces

The number of troops that the two armies had available to battle are elencated by the ancient sources but must to be taken with caution, considering the exaggeration that sometimes ruled ancient historians. Herodotus tells us of 10,000 greek hoplites and, in this case, the figure is probably not very far from the truth. In fact, according to contemporary historians, in that period the organizational structure of athenian demi was able to mobilize between 5,000 and 8,000 hoplites and it seems reasonable to assume that the army of Miltiades was composed of 6,000 or 7,000 athenian hoplites and 1,000 plataeans. To these, must be added the non-combatants and troops, who had no role in the battle, to a maximum of 10,000 or 12,000 men.

More complicated is the number for the Persian army. Certainly be discarded the evaluations of ancient writers that told us of an army consisting of many tens thousands of soldiers. Considering the possible fleet size, you can estimate about 25,000 men for the persian force. This figure is inclusive of sailors and oarsmen of the fleet. We must also considering the plan of Artaphernes that was to attack Athens by sea after leaving ground forces at general Dati to hold Miltiades at Marathon; this assumes that some of the fighters were still boarded. Considering then the physical space that the plain of Marathon allowed to the armies standings in open formations, especially the persian one, you can evaluate correctly in 8,000 or 9,000 infantrymen and about 2,000 knights for the persian force engaged in Marathon. This would drop one of the myths that have surrounded this episode, namely the victory of the few against the many.


The battle

The armies faced each other camped by deferring the clash for three long days, were nothing essentially happened. This probably confirms an actual balance on the field and the plan to hold Miltiades at Marathon while Artaphernes, with the fleet, had to made a turning movement toward Athens. However, when news arrived of a Spartan army already in march towards Attica, general Dati decided to give battle. Miltiades, meanwhile, decided to take the tactics initiative deploying the phalanx in combat line but reinforcing the two wings at the expense of central lines, which were reduced to a few files. Miltiades, considering the fact that he lacks cavalry, feared a turning manoeuvre of persian knights, and, definitely, attacked the enemy.

Herodotus relates that the hoplites led the attack by running for eight furlongs (approx. 1,400 metres), but the tactic 'race' must be interpreted with discretion. In fact, given the heaviness of the hoplitic equipment, we do not understand how the Athenians, after a similar effort, had the strength to fight. It is more realistic to think that the two sides have moved against one another and that the athenians have completed the movement with a short charge.

The battle was very violent and the persians have suffered the consequences, not being accustomed to close fight as their usual tactic consisted mainly in throwing arrows and javelins. This tactic was ineffective against the heavy Hoplite armor. In fact, while the athenian centre, being less numerous, slowly yielded to opponents without breaking the ranks, the adequately reinforced wings blocked the maneuvers of the enemy cavalry, and once broke through the persian troops, began to close on the bulk of the enemy. At this point, feeling surrounded and close to defeat, the persians broke through the line and started to flee toward the ships.

battle of Marathon scheme
The battle of Marathon - Battle scheme

Was in that moment, as often happened in the battles of antiquity, that the clash turned into a massacre. The greeks threw themselves over the persians fleeing into the massacre, only few managed to take the sea to safety. According to the ancient historians athenians killed 6,400 persians on the field, the figure is perhaps a little exaggerated, but probably not very far from the truth, given the evolution of the battle. For their part, the athenians killed were only 192, including the polemarca Callimachus. Even this figure may seem unbelievable, but since the bulk of killings occurred after the breakup of the deployment and during the escape of the persians, can be considered realistic.

According to the use reserved to the heroes in Greece, the corpses of the dead were cremated and, on the site of the battle, they erected a mound still visible today. Some excavations in the area revealed the remains of numerous fires. What matters is that, for the first time, a greek army had defeated a persian army in the open field. The victory was total and legend has it that Pheidippides, the hoplite and messenger, was sent to Athens to announce the victory and after going up in the city fell dead after his announcement.

Noting the defeat, Artaphernes was reunited with the survivors of the battle. For him, the only remaining victory hope was doubling Cape Sounion and quickly attack Athens by surprise while the hoplite army was still in Marathon. But Miltiades, preventing his plans, granted to its soldiers only a few hours of rest after the battle and immediately moved the army into the city. Reached Athens after only eight hours of travel, Miltiades sided men on the walls of the city thus as to deter any offensive attempt the persian fleet. The persian ships, arrived in sight of Athens, found the polis army ready to fight and had no other choice but to reverse course.
So, the defeated Artaphernes decided to sail for the Asia's coast.


The consequences

The defeat of the persians made the prestige of Athens, but this also aroused resentment and jealousy in other greek poleis. Moreover, even in the face of the persian threat in Greece no "sacred Union" had formed, in fact, the spartans had delayed: only a few days after the battle the 2000 lacedaemonians hoplites had reached the field, as Athens did not moved a finger to bring help to the unfortunate Eretria.

The athenians however took advantage of this victory to continue their policy of power. The construction of the fleet went ahead and reached the relevant number of 300 triremes, while the fortification of Piraeus were completed. Athens not renounced even to their internal divisions, exemplary is Miltiades ends a year after the victory of Marathon.

The persian Empire, for his part, suffered the defeat as a great humiliation, greater even than that suffered by Sardis was sacked by the ionian League. Darius's mind was always occupied by thoughts of revenge; the Empire's resources were immense how immense were the military readiness that Darius was able to mobilize. The next time the persians would have taken more seriously the greeks and they lashed out all the huge power of Asia.

But it will not fell to Darius implement these intentions: he died, still plagued by defeat in 486; the legacy that he left to his son Xerxes included also a moral obligation to punish the enemy over the Aegean.


The testimonies

By Herodotus, the histories, L. IV

…. The battle of Marathon last long: in the middle of the deployment were winners for the barbarians, where were the same deployed persians and saka; in this section therefore won the barbarians and operated the breakthrough pursued inward enemies; in both wings instead took over the athenians and plataeans.

While coming out winners, left escape those barbarians which had intended to escape, and joined the wings instead fought against those who broke through the middle of their sides and defeated them. Then they start to pursuit the fleeing persians, massacring them, til, at sea, they resorted fire and attempted to seize the ships ...