In the year 490 BC, one of the most pivotal battles in world history took place.
Just north of the City of Athens, Persian and Greek forces clashed in what was to be the first Persian attempt to invade Greece.
Despite being seriously outnumbered, the Greeks managed to win a decisive victory that had long-lasting ramifications.
Learn more about the Battle of Marathon, its causes, and its outcome on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To understand why the Battle of Marathon took place, we have to understand the events that led up to it.
Even a cursory inspection shows that a clash between Greece and Persia was pretty much inevitable.
First, let’s start with Greece.
Ancient Greece wasn’t a singular uniform entity. There was no Greek Empire…although there would be a Macedonian Empire later on.
The Greeks can be better thought of as a civilization. A collection of city-states that often fought with each other but were united under common linguistic, cultural, and religious practices.
The Greeks didn’t just inhabit the area that makes up modern-day Greece. They had spread out, establishing satellite colonies around the coast of the Mediterranean, Black, and Aegean Seas.
For the purposes of this episode, this included many Greek communities that existed in modern-day Turkey, especially in the area of the Bhosopherous Strait and the Aegean Sea..
The Persians were very different from the Greeks. The Persian Empire had expanded rapidly and conquered many lands with different people who had different cultures and languages.
The Persian Empire, and if you remember back to my previous episode on the subject, I’m talking about the Achaemenid Empire, or the first Persian Empire, which was the largest empire in the world at this time.
As the empire expanded westward, it eventually bumped into Greek cities located on the Asian side of the Aegean.
These cities became dominated by the Persians, and the Persians sent rulers to govern these cities.
This didn’t sit well with the Greeks.
Each Greek community had its own set of rules, but for the most part, they did things their own way, and their Persian overlords had no clue about Greek customs and norms.
This friction between Greeks and Persians eventually came to a head in the early 5th century BC.
From 499 to 493 BC, several Greek communities along the Aegean and the Bosphorus revolted against Persian Rule. These were known as the Ionian Revolts.
The Persians managed to put down the revolts, but not before the cities of Athens and Eretria had given the rebellious Greek cities aid. In fact, Athens sent troops to assist the city of Sardis in the year 499 BC.
This angered the Persian King Darius I, who, after the rebellions were put down, sought to seek revenge against the Greek cities who conspired against him.
The Ionian Revolts were not the first interaction between Greeks and Persians. Darius had extended the Persian Empire across the Bhosperus and into the region known as Thrace, which includes the modern-day parts of European Turkey, Bulgaria, and Northern Greece.
These northern parts of the Greek cultural area were also under the dominion of Darius and had become vassal states.
In 491 BC, Darius sent envoys to Athens to request their submission to Darius. The Athenians executed the envoys and proceeded to create a defensive pact with the city of Sparta in the event of a Persian invasion.
In the year 490 BC, Darius decided to launch a punitive expedition against the Greek city-states that supported the rebellious cities in the Ionian Revolts.
He built an armada of ships and island-hopped their way across the Aegean, conquering islands such as Naxos, which had previously resisted Persian advances.
The fleet probably carried close to 90,000 people in total, of which 25,000 were believed to be warriors. Most of the Persian troops were archers and cavalry. The Persian forces were commanded by an admiral by the name of Datis.
The first target was the city of Eretria, one of the two cities that aided the rebels. Eritrea isn’t technically on the mainland but rather is on the island of Euboea. Still, it is literally only 40 meters from the mainland at its closest point, and several bridges cross the strait today.
The Persians landed nearby, laid siege to the city, sacked it, and enslaved the survivors.
The next stop was to take care of the Athenians. It wasn’t that far away. They just had to sail up the Attica Peninsula, which Athens is located on, and that Eretria was only a few hundred meters from.
In September 490 BC, the Persian forces landed about 27 kilometers or 17 miles northeast of Athens in a place called the Plains of Marathon.
The decision to land in Marathon was made by an exiled Athenian by the name of Hippias, who was once a tyrant who ruled the city.
The Athenians were aware of what the Persians were doing. They were not being subtle, and they had advanced knowledge from what happened in Eretria.
The Athenians assembled an army and headed north. One of their leaders was a man by the name of Miltiades. Miltiades was a former ruler of a Greek colony in Thrace that was a vassal of the Persians. He had tried to sabotage a Persian advance into Scythia, what is modern-day Romania, by burning a bridge across the Danube that would have stranded the Persian army.
He later helped with the Ionian Revolts and was selected as the leader because he had the most experience fighting the Persians.
Militades was one of 12 generals who represented the Athenian tribes. In theory, they were supposed to rotate command every day, but every day, the new leader ceded his command to Militades.
Miltiades led a group of about 10,000 Athenian hoplites to Marathon to block the passes that led out of the plains.
The hoplites were infantry units that fought in tight ranks using a shield and a very long spear.
Meanwhile, a runner was sent from Athens to contact Sparta to ask for their assistance and to honor their end of the defensive pact they made with Athens. They sent their best runner, a man by the name of Pheidippides. He ran the distance between Athens and Spart, about 240 kilometers or 150 miles, in two days.
When Pheidippides arrived in Sparta, the Spartans were celebrating their feast of Carneia. The Spartans were warriors through and through and loved a good fight; however, as seriously as they took war, they took their religion even more seriously.
The Spartans were not allowed to wage war during Carneia. They told Pheidippides that they would send help, but they couldn’t do so until the next full moon, which wasn’t for another ten days.
The only Greek city that sent help was the small town of Plataea, which sent about 1,000 hoplites.
The assistance sent by Plataea wasn’t much, but it ended up being a huge morale boost for the Athenian soldiers and the Athenian citizenry.
Back at Marathon, the Persians and the Athenians started each other down for several days. The Athenians were situated between two groves of trees, so they couldn’t be easily outflanked.
The wait benefited the Athenians. The longer they could hold out, the closer they got to the arrival of the Spartans.
However, after several days, the Athenians eventually attacked. It isn’t clear why they did this without the Spartans.
The leading theory is that the Persian cavalry left the field, and Miltiades was taking advantage of the situation. It could be that the Persians might have decided to get the horses aboard the ships to take them around Athens to attack while the main army was occupied in Marathon.
The Athenian forces lined up in an odd way. The center of the Athenian lines was only four men deep, but the flanks of the Athenian lines were eight men deep. This formation has been debated by military historians for centuries.
Some think this was an attempt at a double envelopment of the Persians. The center would hold while the flanks would try to encircle the Persians, similar to what Hannibal and the Carthaginians would do to the Romans 250 years later at the Battle of Cannae.
Others think that this was just an attempt to strengthen the Athenian flanks so they wouldn’t get outflanked by the Persians.
The two sides started out about a kilometer and a half, or a mile away from each other. The records of the battle, which were written well after the event, say that the Athenians sprinted the entire distance to the Persian lines.
More probable is that they marched until they were within distance of the Persian archers, of which there were many, and then sprinted the last 200 meters to lessen the time they would have to spend under Persian arrows.
They were mostly able to protect themselves from the arrows by their armor and shields.
Once the Athenians clashed with the Persian infantry lines, they had the advantage. Without any Persian cavalry, and with the Persian archers now mostly neutralized, they were able to deal with the thin Persian infantry.
The Athenian center was pushed back, as expected, given how thin it was. But the Athenian flanks were able to have their way with the Persian flanks, which as Miltiades probably knew was where the Persians put their weakest soldiers.
Once the Persian flanks collapsed, the center soon collapsed, and the route was on. The Athenians pushed the Persians back to their ships.
The archers, once confronted with armored infantry, were no match.
The Greek historian Herodotus reports that bodied 6,400 Persian soldiers were counted on the battlefield.
The Athenians lost only 192 men, and the Plataeans only 11.
In the process, the Athenians also captured seven Persian ships.
This, however, was not the end.
Despite the heavy losses incurred by the Persians, they still had a numerical advantage over the Athenians. They sailed their ships south to attempt to attack Athens directly while the Athenian forces were still north in Marathon.
The Athenians knew the threat to Athens wasn’t over and immediately marched their troops back to the city. They managed to block any Persian landing and forced the Persians to retreat back across the Aegean to Asia.
After the Athenians had left Marathon, the Spartans showed up a day later only to realize the battle had already taken place and the Athenians had won. The entire Spartan army managed to make the entire 240-kilometer or 150-mile trip in just three days on foot.
Darius had every intent of assembling a new army and heading back to Greece, but it never happened. He had to attend to other rebellions in other parts of his empire, and he never got around to it. That task was given to his son Xerxes, who later attempted an invasion of Greece, which the Spartans in part thwarted at the Battle of Thermopylae, which I’ve covered in a previous episode.
At this point, you must be noticing that I’ve completely ignored the one thing you think of when I say the word ‘marathon.’ The running race goes by the same name.
According to legend, the runner Pheidippides ran the distance from Marathon to Athens to tell everyone the results of the battle. When he arrived in Athens, he supposedly shouted “nenik?kamen!” or we have won, and then promptly died.
The problem is there is no evidence for this story. It first appeared over 500 years after the battle took place.
It appears to be a confusion of two elements of the story: Pheidippides’s run to Sparta and the march of the Athenian soldiers back to Athens after the battle.
The Battle of Marathon wasn’t the biggest or greatest battle in history, but it was an extremely important battle. It was a battle between two civilizations. The result of the battle allowed for the creation of Athenian democracy, which became a basis for republican politics in Western culture, as well as for the later development of Greek philosophy and the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.