The importance of the battle of Marathon

“For if you agree with me that we should fight, you make your country free and your city the best in all of Greece. But if you choose not to fight, we will lose it all” (Herodotus 6.109)

So spoke the Athenian general Miltiades to his fellow general Callimachus, setting in motion one of the greatest military gambles in history. The date was 490 BC. The place was Marathon. The mission: to resist the invasion of the Persian army, the largest fighting force ancient Greece had ever seen.

In early August of that year, guided by the traitor Hippias, the exiled tyrant of Athens, Persian forces landed in the bay of Marathon, just 25 miles north of the city. Persian numbers were enormous, and their mission was revenge. The Persian king, Darius, was furious that Athenians and Eretrians (inhabitants of the modern-day island of Euboea) had provided help to a revolt taking place on the borders of the Persian king’s empire along the Ionian coast (modern-day Turkey). The revolt had been crushed but Darius decided, once and for all, to put an end to Greece, what he must have seen as this annoying flea on the hide of the much larger Persian empire. His massive forces set sail across the Aegean sea, decimated the island of Naxos, run rough shod over the Eretrians and landed at Marathon with Athens as their next target.

Persian king Darius

Hearing of their landing at Marathon, the Athenians scrambled every soldier they had. Against the vast Persian forces, the ancient historians put the Athenian number at just 9,000 men (against 300,000 Persians), with an additional 1,000 sent by nearby city of Plataea.

Greek and Persian soldiers

The Athenians also sent a runner, Pheidippides, to Sparta (a distance of 140 miles) to ask for help. The Spartans, in the middle of one of their religious festivals, replied that they would not be able to send their troops for ten days. Pheidippides ran the 140 miles back to join the Athenian ranks at Marathon with the devastating news that the Athenians and Plataeans would have to face the might of Persia alone. As the enormous Persian army beached their ships and set up their battle lines on the plain of Marathon, the small Athenian and Plataean force blocked the narrow passes out of the plain that led to Athens.

Pheidippides death after bringing the word about the victory

The statement ensued, only broken by the Athenian general Miltiades, who convinced his fellow general Callimachus that the Greeks should attack with the rousing words quoted above. On 12th August (or perhaps 12th September, depending on how you interpret the ancient calendars) 490 BC, the Greek forces, for the first time ever in battle according to Herodotus, ran rather than marched the 1,500 m that separated them from their enemy. They did so with such frenzied passion that the Persians thought they’d gone mad.

The battle shown at the sarcophagus

The small Greek force, comprised of heavily armed citizen-soldiers, quickly broke the lightly armed Persian flanks, before turning inwards to crush its stronger centre. The Athenian general Callimachus was killed, along with 192 Athenian soldiers and 11 Plataeans. But the Persian losses were much greater: 6,400 soldiers and seven ships. The defeated Persian forces hurried to their remaining ships, many drowning in the marshes that surround Marathon.

Once at sea, the Persian fleet attempted to menace Athens again along its southern coast, but seeing the Athenian forces drawing up to defend the city, having quickly marched the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens, the Persians gave up and sailed for home. The Athenians, with Plataean help, had won a victory for the freedom of not just their cities, but for all of Greece.

Statue of Miltiades

Historian ES Creasy, in 1851, included Marathon in his account of the 15 decisive battles of world history, and more famously, in 1846, John Stuart Mill declared in his essay on early Grecian history and legend: “The true ancestors of the European nations 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 British history, is more important than battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the S might still have been wandering in the woods.”

For the Persians, Marathon’s significance was, perhaps surprisingly, minimal. The Persian king had almost infinite resources within a huge empire. Only ten years later, Darius’s son, Xerxes, would return with an even larger forces to attack Greece. This invasion was famously held up by 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, and would later be defeated by an unified Greek force at Plataea and Salamis. Yet those victories at Plataea, Salamis and Thermopylae may not have been possible without Marathon. For Marathon was the first battle in which the Greeks ever defeated the Persians. It proved such a thing was possible.

Miltiades’s helmet

It was undoubtedly to the Athenians that Marathon made the most difference. It was after all – some Plataean assistance aside – their victory. The fact not only strengthened the fledgling democracy at Athens, but it made Athens the respected powerhouse of Greece. The Athenians lost no time in ensuring that this message, and their  ownership of the Marathon legend be remembered for all time. At the battlefield, they constructed a victory trophy – a ten-metre-high column of marble – and burial mound, nine metres high and 50 metres wide, for the 192 Athenians who had died. Both are still visible at Marathon today. On the Acropolis, the central sacred area of Athens, in the place where the Parthenon would be built 50 years later, a great temple seems to have been begun, which would be destroyed before completion by the second Persian invasion ten years later.

The field of Marathon today

But how Marathon is important to us today? If Greece had fallen at Marathon, what would Europe look like? It would have been different. On the other hand, we have bear in mind Mill’s opinion about the importance of Marathon in the context of the time he lived. Western Europe, in the 19th century, was in the grip of “philhellenism” – a love for all things Greek. The Greek nation had been recently reborn after its own war of independence from Ottoman control. Coupled with the increasing popularity of a grand narrative of European history that joined the west and freedom and pitched it against the east and despotism, it is easy to see how Herodotus’s story of ancient Greece’s conflict against Persia, and particularly the battle of Marathon, gained such notoriety and importance.

Pheidippides’s legacy – modern time marathon race