King Darius I, third King of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula. 200 years before the classical age of Greece, several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea.
The year was 499BC and this “Ionian Revolt” lasted, until 493BC. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius. Every night before dinner according to Herodotus, Darius required one of his servants three times, to say to him “Master, remember the Athenians“.
The Persian “King of Kings” sent emissaries to the Greek city states demanding gifts of earth and water, signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them. Sparta didn’t bother with a trial. They threw the ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they called down. “There is your water”.
Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire.
25 centuries ago, Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea. A force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica, fetching up in a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.
An army of 9,000-10,000 hoplites (armored infantry) marched out of Athens under the leadership of ten Athenian Strategoi (Generals), to face the 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry of the Persians. The Athenian force was soon joined by a full muster of 1,000 Plataean hoplites, while Athens’ swiftest runner Pheidippides was dispatched to Lacedaemon, for help.
The festival of Carneia was underway at this time, a sacrosanct religious occasion during which the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) army would not fight, under any circumstance. Sparta would be unavailable until the next full moon, on September 9. With 136 miles to Marathon, Spartan reinforcement was unlikely to arrive for a week or more.
The Athenian force arrived at the Plain of Marathon around September 7, blocking the Persian route into the interior.
Facing a force more than twice as large their own, ten Greek Generals split 5 to 5 whether to risk battle.
A “Polemarch” is an Athenian civil dignitary, with full voting rights in military matters. General Miltiades, who enjoyed a degree of deference due to his experience fighting Persians, went to the Polemarch Callimachus, for the deciding vote.
The stakes of what was about to come are difficult to overstate. Arguably, the future of western civilization hung in the balance.
Athens itself stood defenseless, with every warrior here on the plain of Marathon. Miltiades spoke. ‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations…We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided. Half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’
With less than a mile between them, the two armies had faced one another for five days and five nights. On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line. “At them!”
Weighed down with 70lbs per man of bronze and leather armor, the Greek line likely marched out to 200 yards, the effective range of Persian archers. Greek heavy infantry closed the last 200 meters at a dead run, the first time a Greek army had fought that way.
Persian shafts flew by the thousands, yet the heavy armor and wooden shields of the hoplite formation, held. Bristling with arrows yet seemingly unhurt, the Greek phalanx smashed into the Persian adversary, like an NFL front line into an “Antifa” mob.
Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire, describes the impact. “The enemy directly in their path … realized to their horror that [the Athenians], far from providing the easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had first imagined, were not going to be halted … The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of fighting in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze … in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverizing crash of metal into flesh and bone; then the rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows or slings. The hoplites’ ash spears, rather than shivering … could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death beneath the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze“.
Darius’ force was routed, driven across the beach and onto waiting boats. 6,400 Persians lay dead in the sand. An unknown number were chased into coastal swamps, and drowned. Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.
In the popular telling of this story, Pheidippides ran the 25 miles to Athens and announced the victory with the single word “Nenikēkamen!” (We’ve won!”), and dropped dead.
That version first appeared in the writings of Plutarch, some 500 years later. It made for a good story for the first Olympic promoters too, back in 1896, but that’s not the way it happened.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, described by no less a figure than Cicero as the “Father of History”, tells us that Pheidippides was already spent. No wonder. The man had run 140 miles from Athens to Lacedaemon, to ask for Spartan assistance.
Despite the exhaustion of battle and the weight of all that armor, the Athenian host marched the 25 miles back home, arriving in time to head off the Persian fleet. The Spartans arrived at Marathon the following day, having covered 136 miles in three days.
Though a great victory for the Greeks, Darius’ loss at Marathon barely put a dent in the vast resources of the Achaemenid Empire. The Persian King, would return.