The Battle Of Marathon: A Bloody War That Saw An Outnumbered Greek Army Defeat Their Persian Foes

At Marathon, an outnumbered force of Greek hoplites seized a chance to defeat their Persian foes, exploiting their superior armour and discipline to win one of the most famous tactical victories of the ancient world. It was, however, not the end of the Persian threat to the independent Greek city-states.

The Battle of Marathon
At the Battle of Marathon, the Greeks, with an army of around 11,000 defeated a Persian force nearly double their size

In 490 BCE, the Persian Greek King, Darius I (circa 550- 486 BCE), decided once again to settle long-standing scores with the Athenians, who had resisted incorporation into the Persian Empire and had supported the Ionian revolt against Persian rule in 499 BCE. The Persian invasion force would be entirely transported by sea, thereby avoiding the problems that had beset a similarly-minded expedition two years previously.

The naval component of the expedition was composed of nearly 600 ships, transporting a landing force numbered at perhaps 25,000 fighting men, including a small cavalry contingent, probably about 1,000 strong. This force was commanded by Darius' nephew Artaphernes and Datis, a nobleman of Median descent. The Persians burned a destructive trail across the Aegean and the Greek coastline, but their principal destination was the plain of Marathon, nearly 42 km (26 miles) from Athens. In response, an Athenian army of nearly 10,000 hoplites - heavily-armed infantry - marched out to Marathon. They were joined by a force of between 600 and 1,000 hoplites from the city of Plataea, a long-time ally of Athens.

The Battle

The two armies faced each other for perhaps four days. By the evening of 11 August, however, time was running out for the Persians. Expectations of a pro-Persian uprising in Athens remained unfulfilled, and the Athenians might soon be receiving Spartan reinforcements. As a result, the Persians embarked some of their forces on transports, which sailed for Athens the next morning while the remainder of their troops kept a watch on the Athenian and Plataean hoplites at Marathon. This mobile unit was under the command of Datis and seems to have included the majority of the Persian cavalry, who would be very useful in making a dash for Athens once the task force made landfall at Phaleron Bay.

Artaphernes would stay at Marathon and maintain a close blockade of the Athenian camp. He probably had about 15,000 men with him, almost exclusively infantry. Fortunately for the Athenians, they were alerted to the Persian plan by some sympathetic Ionians who were serving with the Persians. They sent the famous message "the cavalry are away" which galvanized the resolve of the Athenian commanders to offer battle. The next morning, therefore, saw the opposing forces arrayed for battle.

The Athenian general Miltiades, who understood Persian tactics, was in command that day, and deployed the Greek forces. He knew that the Persians were likely to put their best troops in the centre of their battle line and that the Persian numbers would make it likely that if he arrayed his phalanx eight-deep along the entire front, they would be outflanked. In order to prevent this, he made the centre of his line thinner, knowing that the Persians would initially have success there.

However, Miltiades also knew that the wings of the Persian formation would be formed from lighter-armed and less enthusiastic levies and that the more heavily-armed wings of the Greek army would be victorious. He therefore, ordered that the wings not pursue the defeated levies, but once they had been driven off, the wheel inwards on the Persian centre. The right wing was under the command of the leader Callimachus and the left was formed by the Plataeans.

Artaphernes deployed his troops as Miltiades had expected. His best troops, Iranian soldiers from the standing army and thought Saka mercenaries, formed the centre of his formation with various levies, including unenthusiastic Ionian Greeks on the flanks. In order to maintain his close blockade of the Athenian camp, he advanced within eight stades, or 1.6km (1 mile), of the Greek positions.

Greek Victory

The Greeks advanced from their camp towards the Persian lines. The battle lines came together in brutal combat and the Persians quickly had the better of it in the centre, where the best of their troops were posted, and the Athenians were pushed back. On the wings, however, the levies were routed. Following their orders, the victorious Greeks wheeled in against the Persian centre, catching it in a double envelopment.

A slaughter followed that resulted in 6,400 Persian casualties, mostly Iranian and Saka troops, and only 192 Athenians (including Callimachus), and a handful of Plataeans killed. The Athenians could not, however, rest after their victory. While one tribal division held the field, the remainder made a forced march back to Athens. They arrive in time to deter the Persians from landing and so Datis, now joined by Artaphernes' survivors, was forced to return home.

Now you have read about the Battle of Marathon, make sure you take the time to read about The Battle Of Kadesh: The War Of Two Ancient Superpowers In 1294 BCE.


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