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Persian Wars: Battle of Marathon

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Conflict:

The Battle of Marathon was fought during the Persian Wars (498 BC–448 BC) between Greece and the Persian Empire.

Date:

Using a proleptic Julian calendar, it is believed that the Battle of Marathon was fought on either August or September 12, 490 BC.

Armies & Commanders:

Greeks

  • Militiades
  • Callimachus
  • Arimnestus
  • approx. 8,000-10,000 men

Persians

  • Datis
  • Artaphernes
  • 20,000-60,000 men

Battle of Marathon Summary:

In the wake of the Ionian Revolt (499 BC-494 BC), the emperor of the Persian Empire, Darius I, dispatched an army to Greece to punish those city-states that had aided the rebels. Led by Mardonius, this force succeeded in subjugating Thrace and Macedonia in 492 BC. Moving south towards Greece, Mardonius' fleet was wrecked off Cape Athos during a massive storm. Losing 300 ships and 20,000 men in the disaster, Mardonius elected to withdraw back towards Asia. Displeased with Mardonius' failure, Darius began planning a second expedition for 490 BC after learning of political instability in Athens.

Conceived as a purely maritime enterprise, Darius assigned command of the expedition to the Median admiral Datis and the son of the satrap of Sardis, Artaphernes. Sailing with orders to attack Eretria and Athens, the fleet succeeded in sacking and burning their first objective. Moving south, the Persians landed near Marathon, approximately 25 miles north of Athens. Responding to the impending crisis, Athens raised around 9,000 hoplites and dispatched them to Marathon. They were joined by 1,000 Plataeans. Encamping on the edge of the Plain of Marathon, the Greeks faced a Persian force numbering between 20-60,000.

For five days the armies squared off with little movement. For the Greeks, this inactivity was largely due to a fear of being attacked by the Persian cavalry as they crossed the plain. Finally, the Greek commander, Miltiades, elected to attack after receiving favorable omens. Some sources also indicate that Militiades had learned from Persian deserters that the cavalry was away from the field. Forming his men, Militiades reinforced his wings by weakening his center. This may have been due to the Persian's tendency to place inferior troops on their flanks.

Moving a brisk pace, possibly a run, the Greeks advanced across the plain towards the Persian camp. Surprised by the Greeks' audacity, the Persians rushed to form their lines. As the armies clashed, the thinner Greek center was quickly pushed back. The historian Herodotus reports that their retreat was disciplined and organized. Pursuing the Greek center, the Persians quickly found themselves flanked on both sides by Militiades' strengthened wings. Having caught the enemy in a double envelopment, the Greeks began to inflict heavy casualties.

As panic spread in the Persian ranks, their lines began to break and they fled back to their ships. Pursuing the enemy, the Greeks were slowed by their heavy armor, but still managed to capture seven Persian ships.

Aftermath:

Casualties for the Battle of Marathon are generally listed as 203 Greek dead and 6,400 for the Persians. As with most battles from this period, these numbers are suspect. Defeated, the Persians withdrew back to Asia. The Battle of Marathon was the first major victory for the Greeks over the Persians and gave them confidence that they could be defeated. Ten years later the Persians returned and won a victory at Thermopylae before being defeated by the Greeks at Salamis.

The Battle of Marathon also gave rise to the legend that the Athenian herald Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens to announce the Greek victory before dropping dead. This legendary run is the basis for the modern track and field event. Herodotus contradicts this legend and states that Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta to seek aid before the battle.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
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  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: to 1000
  6. Marathon - Battle of Marathon

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