The mountains look on Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the sea.
And musing there an hour alone,
I dreamed that Greece might still be free,
For standing on the Persian’s grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
(Lord Byron, The Isles of Greece)
In his 1846 review of Grote’s “History of Greece”, John Stuart Mill wrote:
“The interest of Grecian history is unexhausted and inexhaustible. As a mere story, hardly any other portion of authentic history can compete with it. Its characters, its situations, the very march of its incidents, are epic. It is an heroic poem, of which the personages are peoples. It is also, of all histories of which we know so much, the most abounding in consequences to us who now live. The true ancestors of the European nations (it has been well said) are not those from whose blood they are sprung, but those from whom they derive the richest portion of their inheritance. The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods.”
The Battle of Marathon is important for many reasons. Lord Byron and John Stuart Mill stated some of the them in the passages quated above.
It also has many layers.
The military layer is one of them.
The other is Persians against Greeks.
There is also one though that is not apparent at first sight. Democracy against oligarchy and aristocracy.
Democracy in Athens
One clarification is required at the outset. The Athenian Polis included all of Attica, not only the geographic area of Athens.
Marathon is one of the areas of Attica, and thus was part of the Athenian Polis.
Most historians agree that Democracy in Athens was established by Cleisthenes in 508/507.
In 510 BC, with the help of the Spartans, Cleisthenes overthrew Hippias, the ruler of Athens, son of tyrant Peisistratos, who ruled the City until 528 BC.
But he did not rule straight away, because the Spartans favoured his rival, Isagoras, and they expelled Cleisthenes from the city.
After returning to power, Cleisthenes made some significant reforms that strengthened democratic rule (8):
- He established legislative bodies run by individuals chosen by lottery, a true test of real democracy, rather than kinship or heredity.
- He reorganized the Boule, created with 400 members under Solon, so that it had 500 members, 50 from each tribe.
- He also introduced the bouletic oath, “To advise according to the laws what was best for the people”.
- The court system (Dikasteria — law courts) was reorganized and had from 201–5001 jurors selected each day, up to 500 from each tribe.
It was the role of the Boule to propose laws to the assembly of voters, who convened in Athens around forty times a year for this purpose. The bills proposed could be rejected, passed or returned for amendments by the assembly.
It is important to stress that Democracy did not arrive in Athens suddenly. The wheels were set in motion in the 7th century. It just so happens that it all came together when Cleisthenes ruled.
Given the nature of direct democratic rule in Athens, it comes as no surprise that Hippias did not fit in. It was nothing personal. Athenian democracy was incompatible with oligarchy and monarchy. Hippias had no chance to rule Athens again, if this was left to the Athenians to decide.
For this reason during the Ionian Revolt, which I will briefly discuss in the next section, he decided to join the Persians and return to Athens as a victor with the Persian army and navy.
The Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC)
The Ionian Revolt is the precursor of the Greek-Persian Wars on Greek soil and sea.
By the time of Darius I, the Persian empire covered most of southwest Asia and Asia Minor, reaching as far as the easternmost boundaries of Europe. The Persians demanded tribute and respect from all they dominated. (7)
The Ionian revolt started at 499, when the Ionian cities of Minor Asia rebelled against the Persian King Darius.
The Athenians and Eretrians sent a task force of 25 triremes to Asia Minor to aid the revolt. (5)
From 499 to 494 there were a lot of campaigns without any decisive effect.
By 494, the Persian army and navy had regrouped and made straight for the rebellion epicentre at Miletus. (6)
The decisive confrontation took place at sea, off the small island of Lade. The Persians convinced the Samians to defect, leaving the Ionian navy exposed. Although the Ionians and their allies fought bravely, they lost to the Persians. This was the beginning of the end of the Ionian revolt.
During the revolt, the deposed tyrant of Athens Hippias, fled to the Persian Palace and became an “advisor” to the Persian King Darius I.
We will meet Hippias again in the battle of Marathon.
When it all ended, in 493, one thing was certain. Darius wanted revenge. The Athenians and Eretrians had to pay for their role in the Ionian Revolt.
The first Persian invasion of Greece (492 – 490 BC)
The Persians invaded Greece because they wanted to punish Athens and Eretria for their role in the Ionian Revolt. Darius I also wanted to expand his control of the Eastern Mediterranean.
There were two campaigns in the first Persian invasion of Greece.
The first in 492 under Mardonius, saw the Persians take over Thrace and Macedon. In 491, Darius sent ambassadors to all Greek Cities, demanding their submission. Almost all cities submitted, except Athens and Sparta. Darius knew that he had to proceed to the next campaign.
In 490, under the command of his nephew Artaphernes and the Median admiral Datis, this Persian armada allegedly consisted of 600 ships (troop and transport, provided and manned by subject allies) and an unspecified number of Persian infantry and cavalry, described by Herodotus as ‘powerful and well-equipped’.
Starting from the island of Naxos, the Persians captured a number of other Greek cities and islands en route, and besieged Eretria which succumbed after six days, weakened from within by party political strife and a pro-Persian faction which betrayed the city. A few days later, the Persians sailed for Attica, ‘in high spirits and confident’ (Herodotus). Marathon was selected as the best spot to invade, being closest to Eretria and also the most suitable for cavalry manoeuvres. At least, such was the advice of Hippias who was with this Persian force which he hoped would restore him to power. It was here that his father Pisistratus had landed in 546 for his successful bid for the tyranny in Athens. (1)
Liberty and Equality of civic rights are brave spirit stirring things, and they who, while under the yoke of a despot, had been no better men of war than any of their neighbours, as soon as they were free, became the foremost men of all. For each felt that in fighting for a free commonwealth, he fought for himself and whatever he took in hand he was willing to do the work thoroughly. Herodotus
The Athenian Army
The army was managed by the polemarch, together with ten generals, one elected from each of the tribes. Starting with Kleisthenes, there were ten tribes in the Polis of Athens, therefore there were 10 generals, one elected from each tribe. In their attempt to ensure equality, the Athenians by the 5th century allotted most offices, even the highest archonships. Some positions, however, such as treasurers and the water commissioner, required “technical” knowledge and could not be left to the luck of the draw; these remained elective.
The generalships are the clearest example of this practice, of electing rather than allotting, and many of the leading statesmen of Athens held the position. Perikles, for instance, never served as eponymous archon-nominally the highest post in the state-but he was elected general of his tribe year after year, and from that position he guided Athenian affairs for decades.
The army was made of oplites (men bearing arms), who were Athenian citizens. All oplites were volunteers, and were providing for their arms and equipment. It was considered one of the highest honors to be able to fight for the Polis, as became known to the world with Pericles’ Funeral Oration.
At the time of the Marathon Battle, each tribe (phyle) nominated 1,000 oplites.
Contrary to the Athenian Army, the Persian Army consisted mostly of people who were conscripted from various occupied territories, including Ionia. Only the officers were Persians.
From a technical perspective, the Athenian Army had two major disadvantages compared to the Persian. The Athenians had no cavalry and no arch men.
In overall charge of the Athenian Army was the War-Archon (polemarch), Callimachus, who had been elected by the whole citizen body. (5)
Initially there was a big disagreement among the generals. Should they go to Marathon and battle the Persians, or should they stay in Athens and protect the city?
The argument was won by Miltiades, who convinced Callimachus that they should battle the Persians in Marathon.
Militiades was one of the ten generals under the polemarch, but after the crucial decision was made, by the consensus of the generals he was placed in command. The win in Marathon is attributed to Miltiades’ genius by many historians.
The forces of the Athenians and the Plataeans totaled only 11,000 men (the column of the Plataeans was 1,000 strong) – the Persian force was perhaps 20-25,000 strong. (11)
While the two armies were facing each other on the Marathon plain, the Spartans were celebrating a period of peace and could not move to the aid of the Athenians before the pweriod was over, somewhere around the middle of August 490.
Therefore, it appears to have been to the benefit of the Athenians to wait.
We do not know who attacked first. But the battle bagan before the Spartans even left their city to march to Athens.
Early in the morning of the batle, the Persians followed Hippias’ advice and sent most of their ships and cavalry to Phaleron, the port of Athens. They thus thought that after the battle in Marathon they could easily capture the city that was not defended, as all armed units were in Marathon. This journey from Marathon to Phaleron would take 6 to 8 hours.
The Athenians were informed by Ionian soldiers in the Persian Army that the fleet had sailed and Miltiades decidd to attack.
The battle started at arounf 05:30 in the morning and it was over in three hours.
At the time of the battle commencing there was only around one mile (1.5 kilometres) separating both armies.
The formation of the Greek army was one with the central armed forces having soldiers in rank of 4 while the flanking forces had soldiers in rank of 8. This formation then either marched or ran (most likely marched) the distance to the Persian forces and stopped some 200 metres short of the Persian army.
At this point the Greek army went into a mad run to the enemy. Upon battle commencing the Greek middle ranks of four were pushed back slightly, but the flanks routed the Persians flanks that then fled back to their ships.
After the battle was over, and decidely won by the Athenians, Miltiades left a small contingent to guard the area so that the Persians would not be able to land again in Marathon, and with the rest of the Army marched back to Athens. They made it on time, so that when the PErsian navy arrived in Phaleron, they found the Athenian Army ready to welcome them.
After an assessment of the situation, the Persians decided to abort the mission to conquer Athens and sailed back to their land.
Hippias is said to have died at Lemnos, on the journey back “home”.
Herodotus on the Battle of Marathon (10)
112. The lines were drawn up, and the sacrifices were favorable; so the Athenians were permitted to charge, and they advanced on the Persians at a run. There was not less than eight stades in the no man’s-land between the two armies. The Persians, seeing them coming at a run, made ready to receive them; but they believed that the Athenians were possessed by some very desperate madness, seeing their small numbers and their running to meet their enemies without support of cavalry or archers. That was what the barbarians thought; but the Athenians, when they came to hand-to-hand fighting, fought right worthily. They were the first Greeks we know of to charge their enemy at a run and the first to face the sight of the Median dress and the men who wore it. For till then the Greeks were terrified even to hear the names of the Medes.
113. The fight at Marathon went on for a long time, and in the center the barbarians won, where the Persians themselves and the Sacae were stationed. At this point they won, and broke the Greeks, and pursued them inland. But on each wing the Athenians and the Plataeans were victorious, and, as they conquered, they let flee the part of the barbarian army they had routed, and, joining their two wings together, they fought the Persians who had broken their center; and then the Athenians won the day. As the Persians fled, the Greeks followed them, hacking at them, until they came to the sea. Then the Greeks called for fire and laid hold of the ships.
114. At this point of the struggle the polemarch [Callimachus] was killed, having proved himself a good man and true, and, of the generals, there died Stesilaus, son of Thrasylaus. And Cynegirus, the son of Euphorion, gripped with his hand the poop of one of the ships and had his hand chopped off with an axe and so died, and many renowned Athenians also.
115. In this fashion the Athenians captured seven of the ships. With the rest of the fleet, the barbarians, backing water, and taking from the island where they had left them the slaves from Eretria, rounded Cape Sunium, because they wished to get to Athens before the Athenians could reach it. There was a slander prevalent in Athens that they got this idea from a contrivance of the Alcmaeonidae, in accord with a covenant they had made with the Persians, showed a signal, the holding-up of a shield, for those barbarians who were on shipboard.
116. They rounded Sunium, all right; but the Athenians, rushing with all speed to defend their city, reached it first, before the barbarians came, and encamped, moving from one sanctuary of Heracles – the one at Marathon – to another, the one at Cynosarges. The barbarians anchored off Phalerum – for in those days that was the harbor of Athens – and, after riding at anchor there for a while, they sailed back, off to Asia.
117. In this battle of Marathon there died, of the barbarians, about six thousand four hundred men, and, of the Athenians, one hundred and ninety-two. Those were the numbers of the fallen on both sides. . . .
Aeschylus and Cavafy
One of Marathon’s more renowned combatants, the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, who ultimately was recognized as the ‘Father of Tragedy’ purportedly composed his own epitaph. An indication of the battle’s significance is that he did not mention any of the great works in his distinguished oeuvre, only of his exploits on this highly venerated battlefield.
Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
or the long-haired Persian who knows it well
Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει
μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·
ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι
καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος
Ο Αισχύλος, ο Αθηναίος γιός του Ευφορίωνα βρισκεται σε τουτο το μνημα
Έκλεισε τα μάτια στη Γέλα, την εύφορη σε δημητριακά
Τη δοκιμασμένη του γενναιότητα μαρτυρεί το δάσος του Μαραθώνα
και ο πυκνόμαλλος Μήδος που τη γνώρισε καλά
The inscription on his graveyard signifies according to Castoriadis (4) the primary importance of “belonging to the City”, of the solidarity that existed within the collective body of soldiers – citizens.
Castoriadis (4) also mentions the actor in Cavafy’s “The yound men of Sidon” who protests that the inscription on Aeschylus’ grave is unacceptable:
“…to set down for your memorial
merely that as an ordinary soldier, one of the herd,
you too fought against Datis and Artaphernis.”
(translation Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)
Marathon Memorial Stele – Epigram by Simonides of Ceos
- Ἑλλήνων προμαχοῦντες Ἀθηναῖοι Μαραθῶνι
- χρυσοφόρων Μήδων ἐστόρεσαν δύναμιν
- Fighting in the forefront of the Hellenes, the Athenians at Marathon
- destroyed the might of the gold-bearing Medes.
(1) Re-running Marathon, Bruce Baldwin, History Today, 1998
(2) THE FIFTEEN DECISIVE BATTLES OF THE WORLD by Edward Shepherd Creasy 1851
(3) The Battle of Marathon, Written by Peter Fitzgerald
(4) Castoriadis, Cornelius. “What Makes Greece, 1. From Homer to Heraclitus.” (2004)
(5) Battle of Marathon, Wikipedia
(6) Battle of Lade, Wikipedia
(7) Battle of Marathon, Historynet
(8) Cleisthenes. Wikipedia
(10) The History of Herodotus, trans. David Grene, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp.454-456 (sourced from the “History Guide“).
(11) Lectures on Ancient and Medieval History. Lecture 7. The History Guild.