In many ways, the Battle of Marathon―fought between the ancient Greeks (Athens aided by the Plateans) and the Persian Empire―is arguably one of the greatest battles ever recorded in human history. The reason for this assertion is simply because of the impact it had on the whole of western civilization and the world in general.
Believed to have taken place in September 490 B.C., around the bay of Marathon plain of northeastern Attica, Greece, it is largely considered as the first battle in the Greco-Persian Wars. The battle saw the Persian forces commanded by Datis and Artaphernes invade Athens with a very large army.
To counter the invading forces, the Greeks led by the general Miltiades the Younger put up a strong fight by charging at the Persians first. This brave and decisive move by the Greeks helped secure victory over the Persians; an event that went on to shape the course of history for over two millennia.
Cause of Hostility
Over the centuries, debates on what might have been the major cause of the battle continue to go on. Historians, however, reason that the root cause of the Battle of Marathon was a classic case of vengeance. In 490 B.C., the mighty Persian king Darius looked west, towards two insignificant Greek city-states―Athens and Sparta―that had insulted and supported the Ionian rebellion against his empire.
While Sparta had sent emissaries to the Persian capital warning Darius to cease his attacks on the Greek cities in Asia, Athens, on the other hand, had summoned the audacity to send troops onto Persian soil and to burn the Persian city, Sardis, before scurrying home to safety. Weary of the insults, King Darius sent emissaries to Athens and Sparta demanding the gifts of submission—earth and water.
In answer, the Spartans threw the king’s messengers into a well and told them to help themselves to all the earth and water they desired, while the Athenians had the king’s messengers killed. Enraged, King Darius decided to invade the Greek mainland as a way of teaching the Greeks a lesson. And so the first battle in a series of Greco-Persian battles was born.
Preparation and Battle
Darius ordered his army to destroy Athens and to enslave the survivors. However, trouble within the empire forced Darius to delay retribution. Eight years after Athens had reduced Sardis to ashes, the Persian army finally arrived in Greece and mustered its strength on the Plain of Marathon―a scant two dozen miles from Athens.
For nine days, about ten thousand Athenian hoplites watched the Persian army prepare for battle and wondered how best they would be able to resist an army of professional warriors three times their number. The Athenians sent a message to the Spartans seeking support, but the Spartans who were involved in a religious festival refused to come to their aid. Miltiades, however, led his contingent of 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans to meet a Persian force of about 15,000 men.
For about 5 days, both armies camped on the plains of the Marathon without engaging each other. During this period, the Athenians and their allies succeeded in blocking the two exits from the plain of marathon. This prevented the Persian cavalry from joining the infantry. On September 12, 490 BC, the waiting ended. Before dawn, ten thousand hoplites formed up in columns and waited for the trumpets to signal the order to advance.
Their charge created confusion among the Persian ranks who at first could not believe their eyes and wondered how such a meager force could ever hope to break their lines. Considering how thin the Athenian army was, this charge was seen as madness. However, General Miltiades had ordered the Athenians to form a line equivalent to the stretch of the Persian army in a phalanx formation, and strategically placed his swift men out on the wings while those that weren’t fast were placed in the middle.
He hoped to use those on the wings to outflank the incoming Persian soldiers. With regard to the Persian army, the strongest men were placed down the middle, while the not so strong soldiers (typically enslaved men) were placed on the flanks. This move would prove costly because those Persian soldiers on the flanks started to disband the moment the battle got severe. This allowed the Greek soldiers on the flanks to move further inroads into the heart of the Persian army and inflict heavy damage on them, which caused the Persians to begin to panic.
Realizing that they were outmaneuvered by the Greeks, the Persian soldiers retreated to their ships and upon order from their generals made haste and headed for Athens which was by then without any form of defense. Weary and battle-fatigued, the Greeks raced against them, arriving earlier than the Persians. There, the Greek Athenians defended their homeland with the same vigor and tenacity.
After the defeat at Marathon, King Darius desired to attack the Greeks again; however, this plan of his was kept on hold because he had to crush a revolt in Egypt, which erupted around 486 B.C.E. Darius would die shortly after the campaigns in Egypt, leaving the task of revisiting the Greeks to his son, Xerxes the Great (also Xerxes I).
Historical Importance of the Battle of Marathon
The battle of Marathon is noted by scholars to have been important in different ways. Prior their defeat at Marathon, the Persians rarely tasted defeat in battle. Darius had successfully built the Persian army into a fierce and unbeatable force. However, their defeat at Greece showed that even the mightiest of armies can fall, and that resistance if pursued properly could triumph over tyranny.
After the battle, the Greeks started to hold a strong belief that they could securely defend themselves from any army seeking to bring them harm. Most importantly, the Battle served as a vital pillar upon which the entire classical Greek civilization was built. Obviously, Greek civilization is what would end up forming the melting pot in which western civilization was brewed, influencing all of the Mediterranean and European history for two millennia.
From the Persian perspective, the Greek city-states represented a threat to stability of the Persian Empire. The Persian generals believed that should Greek’s interference in the affairs of the Persia go unchecked, the Persian Empire would go on to fall. Darius’ goal was to make an example of the Greeks and show to the world what could happen to anyone who dare to defy the Persian Empire.
Also importantly, the battle of Marathon is a contribution factor to the existence of today’s marathon race. According to legend, an Athenian messenger was sent from the plains of Marathon to Athens―a distance of about 25 miles (40 km). There, he announced the Persian defeat before dying of exhaustion. This tale would later become the basis for the modern marathon race. Herodotus, also relates that a trained runner, Pheidippides, was sent from Athens to Sparta before the battle in order to request assistance from the Spartans. He is said to have covered about 150 miles (240 km) in about two days.
SOURCES OF AUTHOR’S INFORMATION
Encyclopoedia Britannica. (n.d.). Battle of Marathon. Retrieved May 12, 2020, from Encyclopoedia Britannica: http://www.brittanica.com/event/Battle of marathon
Lacey, J. (2011). The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization. Bantam.
World History. (2020, January 2). Battle of Marathon: Major Cause and Historical Importance. Retrieved May 22, 2020, from World History Education: https://www.worldhistoryedu.com/battle-of-marathon-major-cause-and-historical-importance/