Battle of Marathon

Dafato Team | May 26, 2022

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The Battle of Marathon (Ancient Greek: ἡ ἐν Μαραθῶνι μάχη, hē en Marathôni máchē) was fought in August or September 490 BCE as part of the First Persian War and pitted the forces of the polis of Athens, supported by those of Plataea and commanded by the polemarch Callimachus, against those of the Persian Empire, commanded by the generals Dati and Artafernes.

The origin of the clash must be sought in the military support that the Greek poleis of Athens and Eretria had provided to the Hellenic colonies of Ionia when they rebelled against the empire. Determined to punish them severely, King Darius I of Persia organized a military expedition that was undertaken in 490 B.C.E.: having subdued the Cycladic islands and reached the island of Euboea by sea, the two commanders landed a force that besieged and destroyed the city of Eretria; the fleet continued on to Attica, landing in a coastal plain near the city of Marathon.

Learning of the landing, the Athenian forces along with a handful of Plataean hoplites rushed toward the plain with the intention of blocking the advance of the larger Persian army. Once they decided to give battle, the Athenians succeeded in encircling the enemy, who, panicked, fled disorderly to the ships, thus decreeing their own defeat. Re-embarking, the Persians circumnavigated Cape Sunius, planning to carry the attack directly to the unarmed Athens, but the Athenian army led by the strategist Miltiades, rushing toward the city in forced marches, was able to foil the Persian landing on the coast near Piraeus. The surprise having failed, the attackers returned to Asia Minor with the prisoners captured at Eretria.

The Battle of Marathon is also famous for the legend of the emerodrome Pheidippides who, according to Lucian of Samosata, allegedly ran uninterruptedly from Marathon to Athens to announce victory and, upon arriving there, died from the effort. Although it is a mixture of several ancient stories, the tale of that feat has endured through the centuries to the point of inspiring the conception of the marathon running race, which in 1896 was introduced into the official program of the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens.

The first attempted invasion of Greece by the Persians finds its origins in the insurrectionary movements of the Greek colonies of Ionia against the Achaemenid central power. Events of this kind, which were also replicated in Egypt and usually ended with the armed intervention of the imperial army, were not uncommon: around 500 BCE the Achaemenid Empire, implementing a strong expansionist policy, was still relatively young and therefore an easy potential victim of disagreements among the subjugated populations. Prior to the revolt of the cities of Ionia, King Darius I of Persia had begun a program of colonization against the peoples of the Balkan Peninsula, subduing Thrace and forcing the Kingdom of Macedon to become his ally; such an aggressive policy could not be tolerated by the Greek poleis, which thus supported the revolt of their colonies in Asia Minor, threatening the integrity of the Persian Empire. Support for the insurrection thus proved to be an ideal casus belli for politically annihilating the opponent and punishing him for his intervention.

The Ionian revolt (499-493 B.C.E.) was triggered after the failed aggression on the island of Naxos by the coalesced forces of Lydia and the city of Miletus, commanded by the satrap Artafernes and the tyrant Aristagoras. As a result of the defeat the latter, having realized that the satrap would relieve him of office, decided to abdicate and proclaim democracy. This example was followed by the citizens of the other Greek colonies in Ionia, who deposited their tyrants and proclaimed democratic rule, taking as a model what had happened in Athens with the ouster of the tyrant Hippias and the establishment of democracy by Clythenes. Having taken command of this process of insurrection, which in his plans was aimed not only at fostering the emergence of democratic systems but also at freeing the poleis from Persian interference, Aristagoras asked for the support of the cities of the motherland, hoping they would send him substantial military aid; the appeal, however, was taken up only by Athens and Eretria, which sent the one twenty and the other five ships.

Athens' involvement in the events surrounding the insurrection was due to a complex concatenation of circumstances, which drew their origins from the establishment of democracy in the city during the 6th century BCE. In 510 BCE, with the help of the king of Sparta Cleomenes I, the Athenian people succeeded in expelling Hippias, son of Pisistratus, who together with his father had ruled the city despotically for thirty-six years. Hippias found refuge in Sardis, a guest at the court of Artafernes: having come to terms with the Persians, he used his knowledge to advise them on the best strategies for attacking the Athenians in exchange for his return to power. At the same time, Cleomenes allowed the establishment of a pro-oligarchical government of a tyrannical nature, headed by Isagoras, who opposed the strengthening and refinement of the reforms already proposed at the time by Solon and advocated by Clyisthenes; the pro-democratic politician, despite popular support, was defeated politically and then exiled. The attempt to establish an oligarchic regime on the Spartan model, however, soon failed, and the revolt ousted Isagoras while Cleomenes, banished, could no longer influence Athenian politics. The people recalled Clisthenes (507 BC) to the city and allowed him to carry out the democratic reforms for which he would become famous. This level of independence meant that the Athenian citizens consolidated their desire for autonomy in the face of the anti-democratic policies promoted by Hippias, Spartan interventions of various kinds, and Persian aims.

Cleomenes then marched on Athens with his own army, but his intervention ultimately produced no results except to force the Athenians to ask Artafernes for help. Upon reaching Sardis, the Greek ambassadors agreed to grant the satrap "land and water" (Ancient Greek: γῆ καί ὕδωρ) as a sign of submission, in accordance with the customs of the time, but when they returned they were severely punished for this gesture. In the meantime Cleomenes organized a new coup d'état, attempting to restore the tyrant Hippias to the government of the city, but this initiative was also unsuccessful. Hippias, returning to the court of Artafernes, again proposed to the Persians to subdue Athens: there was a vain attempt to reach a compromise, but the only way to avoid armed intervention would have been to restore Hippias' power, a solution unacceptable to the citizens of the polis. By rejecting the pacification proposal, Athens was taking the risk of running for the title of the main adversary of the Achaemenid Empire. However, additional elements must also be taken into account: the colonies based their democratic model on that proposed by the Athenian polis, and the colonists themselves were of Greek descent.

Athens and Eretria then sent a total force of twenty-five triremes to support the revolt. Arriving there, the Greek army managed to march all the way to Sardis, burning the lower town; however, forced to fall back to the coast as a result of the Persian army's intervention, it suffered a large number of casualties during the precipitous retreat. The action proved not only futile, but caused the final rupture of diplomatic relations between the two adversaries and the birth of Darius' desire for revenge: Herodotus relates in an anecdote that the ruler, slinging his bow, shot an arrow at the sky asking Zeus if he could take revenge, and that he instructed a servant to remind him each day before dinner of his purpose of revenge.

The Hellenic array was finally routed after a series of minor clashes following the Battle of Lade, which ended in 494 BC with a decisive victory for the Persian fleet; in 493 BC all Greek resistance came to an end. The end of hostilities secured a number of advantages for Darius, who definitively asserted his control over the Greek colonies in Ionia, annexed some islands in the eastern Aegean and some territories surrounding the Sea of Marmara. In addition, the pacification of Asia Minor gave him the opportunity to begin his punitive military campaign against the poleis that had intervened in the rebellion on behalf of the rebels.

As early as 492 BC. Darius sent a military contingent to Greece under the command of his son-in-law Mardonius, one of the most prestigious leaders: having reconquered Thrace and forced the Macedonian kingdom of Alexander I into submission, the invasion failed because of a storm near Mount Athos that destroyed the Persian fleet. In 490 BC. Darius mounted a second expedition, this time led by the generals Dati and Artaferne (Mardonius, wounded during the previous attempted invasion, had in fact fallen from grace. The campaign had three main purposes: to subdue the Cycladic islands, to punish the poleis of Naxos, Athens, and Eretria for their hostility against the empire, and to annex all of Greece. After successfully attacking Naxos, the military contingent arrived in Euboea during the summer, and the city of Eretria was taken and burned. Thereafter the fleet moved southward, in the direction of the city of Athens, the final goal of the expedition.


All historians agree that the main source concerning the Persian wars is Herodotus' work The Histories, the reliability of which has always been debated. The author, in fact, claims to have relied on oral sources and further states that his ultimate goal was to have posterity remember the history of the Persian wars, taking the Homeric epic as a model. He, therefore, did not write a historiographical treatise according to today's dictates since he did not cite his sources or report technical data that would certainly not be overlooked today.

While some historians believe that Herodotus, in many instances, intended to corroborate his ideas at the expense of their reliability, but without producing evidence to support this assumption; most scholars consider him to be an honest and non-partisan historian, even though he reported many data that were clearly exaggerated to the point of bordering on myth. One must therefore carefully evaluate the information he reports when he claims to have witnessed events (the Persian wars, for example, broke out before he was born and took place during his early years), as well as the data produced by his informants, who may have passed on incorrect data to him.

Herodotus had very little knowledge of the art of war and military tactics, so he described the Persian wars in a way that harked back to epic tales; for this reason he probably also accepted absurd numbers to quantify the numbers of troops stationed by the Persians in the Second Persian War, and he often preferred to report actions carried out by individuals rather than entire armies. The lack of technical details (due in part to the fact that the witnesses surveyed by Herodotus, often soldiers on one side or the other, did not remember events accurately decades later) often makes it difficult to understand events.

In conclusion, many scholars accept Charles Hignett's assertion that "Herodotus provides the only secure basis for a modern reconstruction of the Persian wars, since other accounts cannot be trusted when they differ from Herodotus."

Regarding the battle of Marathon in particular, Herodotus is the earliest written source of all; the only earlier source is a fresco located in the Stoà Pecile, which was destroyed but described by Pausanias the Periegeta in the second century CE.

Herodotus's account has been the subject of much criticism (a 1952 statement by Arnold Wycombe Gomme, "everyone knows that the account of the battle of Marathon given by Herodotus does not work," is often quoted in this regard), both because of the large number of omissions and because of various incongruent passages. The cause must be blamed on the accounts provided by veterans who certainly did not provide objective data, handing down, instead, versions of the battle congenial to them.

Peter Krentz provides a summary of where Herodotus is most discussed. He omits:

Other ancient writers

Supplementary sources to Herodotus are:

Herodotus assigns numerous events a date taken from the lunisolar calendar, based on the metonic cycle: a calendar used by numerous Greek cities, each of which had its own variant. Astronomical calculations allow us to assign a precise date on which the battle took place in the Julian calendar, but scholars disagree. All proposed dates generally fall between the months of August and September.

Philipp August Böckh in 1855 asserted that the battle took place on September 12, 490 B.C., a date often accepted as correct. The hypothesis is developed by taking for granted that the Spartan army did not depart until the end of the Carnean festivities. Given the possibility that the Lacedaemonian calendar was a month ahead of the Athenian calendar, the battle may have been fought on August 12 of the same year.

A different calculation was made by historian Nicholas Sekunda. Based on the date reported by Herodotus for the arrival of Philippides in Sparta (on the 9th of metagitnion), the fact that the Spartans set out on a full moon (which occurred according to astronomical calculations on the 15th), the news reported again by Herodotus that they arrived in Athens after a three-day journey (i.e., on the 18th), and given that according to Plato they arrived the day after the battle, Sekunda comes to the conclusion that the clash occurred on the 17th of metagitnion. Conversion to the Julian calendar, made assuming no offset (unlikely given that metagitnion was only the second month of the year), leads in this case to the date September 11.

Quantifying the forces employed by the two sides during the battle turns out to be rather arduous. Herodotus, an irreplaceable source for reconstructing the battle, does not report the size of the two armies: he only mentions that the Persian fleet consisted of 600 vessels. Later authors often magnified the Persian numbers, thus emphasizing the valor of the Greeks.

Greek forces

Most ancient sources agree that there were about 10 000 Greek hoplites in the plain of Marathon: Herodotus does not give an exact figure while Cornelius Nepotus, reports the presence of about 9 000 Athenian hoplites and 1 000 soldiers from the polis of Plataea. Pausanias specifies that the total number of Greeks was less than 10 000 and that the Athenian contingent consisted of no more than 9 000 men, including slaves and elders; Marcus Junian Justinus speaks of 10 000 Athenians and 1 000 Plataeans. Since the number of mobilized troops does not deviate from what Herodotus himself reports for the contingents engaged in the Battle of Plataea, it can be assumed that the historians did not deviate from the reality of the facts.

Regarding the presence of Greek cavalry, which is not recorded by ancient historians, it is believed that the Athenians, although they had a cavalry corps, decided not to use it thinking that it was too weak in comparison with the Persian one.

Modern historians usually accept the approximate figure of 10,000 Hoplites, but often point out that one must add to it lightly armed contingents, which are generally equated as numbers of personnel with the number of Hoplites:

Pausanias points out that prior to the battle Miltiades had proposed to the Athenian assembly that a certain number of slaves be freed to fight (an extraordinary measure adopted only twice more in the history of Athens, at the Battle of Arginuse in 406 B.C. and the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C.), so much so that the memorial monument bore the names of many slaves freed for their military services. Many scholars find this implausible and assume that slaves did not fight in Marathon. According to Nicholas Sekunda, the full Athenian army numbered 9,000 men, and so Miltiades in order to replenish the ranks convinced the people to enlist also the over-50s and a number of slaves freed for the occasion.

As for the Persian deployment, the numerical assessments of ancient historians, who report several tens of thousands of troops, have been rejected (the only one who does not give figures on ground troops is Herodotus. The reconstruction of the size of the Persian expeditionary force is still debated among scholars.

The fleet according to data provided by Herodotus must have consisted of 600 ships, but it is thought that this figure may refer to Persian maritime potential rather than its actual size. Given the little resistance Darius thought he would encounter, it nevertheless numerically appears exaggerated, so the number of ships is sometimes reduced to 300.

The number of infantrymen and cavalrymen stationed by the Persians is very uncertain, and assumptions find their basis mainly from these assumptions: the number of ships (600, 300 or less) and the number of casualties (6 400) provided by Herodotus in relation to the Greek contingent (about 10 000 men). Thus the estimates usually advanced identify a range of Persian manpower between 20 000 and 30 000 or more roughly between 15 000 or 40 000 infantry, and between 200 and 3 000 or about 1 000 for cavalry.

Persian landing at Marathon

After taking Eretria, the Persians sailed south in the direction of Attica and docked at the bay of Marathon about 40 kilometers from Athens, advised by the former tyrant Hippias, who was taking part in the expedition; according to Herodotus, the generals Dati and Artafernes chose the plain of Marathon "because it was the best part of Attica for cavalry and at the same time the closest to Eretria." This statement by Herodotus has been much disputed, as some historians consider it wrong, while others accept it but find it inadequate to explain the Persian decision to land at Marathon.

Those who think the sentence is wrong point out that Marathon is not the part of Attica closest to Eretria (some then fail to see why proximity to the city could in any way influence the choice of landing) and that the plain of Cephysus would have been more suitable for cavalry; it has been pointed out that there were other suitable places to be able to launch an attack on Athens.

Numerous additions have been made to the reasons for landing at Marathon listed by Herodotus.

Also in the context of the Persian landing, Herodotus states that Hippias had two conflicting visions: one suggested to him that he would succeed in gaining power, the other that there was no chance of victory over the Athenians.

Pheidippides in Sparta

According to Herodotus' account, the Athenian strategists sent the famous emerodrome Pheidippides to Sparta to request its intervention against the Persians. Pheidippides arrived in Sparta the day after his departure and made his request to the magistrates (probably to the ephors or to them and the gherusia), who replied that they would send their contingent no earlier than the night of the full moon, since all warlike activity was forbidden on those days.

Three possible explanations have been advanced for Sparta's decision not to intervene immediately:

In conclusion, most historians believe that the real reason for the Spartan delay was due to religious scruples, but there is not enough data to say for sure.

According to Lionel Scott it is possible that the assembly or boulé (not the strategists, named erroneously by Herodotus) sent Pheidippides to Sparta after the taking of Eretria, but before the landing at Marathon, since Pheidippides does not mention the latter fact in his speech to the Spartans. However, this appears contrary to what Herodotus says, who in reporting the speech of the emerodrome, writes that Eretria was "now enslaved."

What may seem most far-fetched in Herodotus' account is the fact that Pheidippides completed the journey from Athens to Sparta (approximately 220-240 kilometers) in a single day. Modern historians, however, have amply demonstrated that this feat is possible, so much so that in 2007 a run from Athens to Sparta of 244.56 kilometers was completed within 36 hours by 157 participants; while the record, by the Greek Yiannis Kouros, is 20 hours and 29 minutes.

Athenian march to Marathon

When word of the landing got out, there was a heated debate in Athens about what tactics were best to adopt to deal with the threat. While some were inclined to wait for the Persians to arrive inside the city walls (which, by the way, at the time were probably still too small in size to ensure an effective defense), following the tactic chosen by Eretria, which nevertheless had not saved it from destruction, others, including the strategist Miltiades, fought to confront the Persians at Marathon, preventing them from marching on Athens. Eventually the decree proposed by Miltiades was approved, so the soldiers, having made the necessary provisions, set out. Although the decree is not mentioned by Herodotus, it is usually accepted as true by historians, partly because it is quoted by Aristotle

The Athenian soldiers, led by the polemarch Callimachus of Aphidna and ten strategists, therefore marched in the direction of the plain, intending to block its two exits, thus preventing the Persians from penetrating into the Attic hinterland. Here they arrived and encamped at the shrine of Heracles, located at the southwestern end of the plain, where they were joined by the Plataean contingent. Regarding the intervention of this polis in the conflict, Herodotus states that they decided to intervene since they were protected by them.

There has been much debate about which road the Athenians followed to travel to Marathon. One of the hypotheses considered was the coastal road, which passing from the south reached the landing site after about 40 kilometers, while the mountain road that passed to the north was only about 35 kilometers, although it had many bottlenecks and the last few kilometers were difficult to negotiate because they were undulating and probably obstructed by the forests that grew there at the time. Although some historians lean toward the shorter road, it has been objected that to travel such a route would have been very difficult for a regular army, causing various delays (a circumstance that the Athenians wanted to avoid precisely in order to prevent a possible Persian attack) and above all would have left the Persians with the possibility of bypassing the Athenians by taking the coastal road; consequently, the coastal route hypothesis is currently tended to be preferred. The hypothesis has also been put forward that the Athenian expeditionary force traveled this route, while the Athenians scattered throughout the rest of Attica would have reached Marathon later via the mountain path.

Stalled days

For several days (six to nine) the armies did not face each other, remaining encamped on opposite sides of the plain. The reasons for this stalemate must be deduced from the description of the situation before the battle, in which several inconsistencies were found.

One of these concerns the command of the expedition: all ten strategists (including Miltiades) were present at Marathon, elected by the Athenian people divided into tribes according to the rules imposed by the reform of Clisthenes; while the commander-in-chief of the army was the polemarch Callimachus of Aphidna. Herodotus suggests that the command of the expedition was entrusted in rotation to each of the strategists, but according to some historians this may instead be an expedient designed to justify certain inconsistencies that arose in the narrative of events, this strategy not being confirmed by other sources. In fact, in Herodotus' account, it is pointed out that Miltiades was ready for the clash even without Spartan support, but he chose his day of command to attack, despite the fact that the strategists (backing his determination) had already each surrendered theirs to him. The postponement of the start of hostilities may have been prompted by a tactic deemed advantageous to the Athenians, this choice, however, is shown to be in open contradiction to the firm resolve to give battle attributed to Miltiades, and therefore some speculate that the passing of power from strategist to strategist may be a machination to justify Miltiades' inability to act sooner, as he was prevented from doing so by his colleagues, although historians do not all agree.

The Athenians certainly had good reasons for waiting: they expected the Spartans to arrive within a few days; they knew that the Persians had limited resources of water, food, and fodder and were, moreover, at risk of epidemics because of the large amount of excrement produced by men and horses over many days in a limited space; and finally they hoped that the invaders would be the first to attack, since this would mean fighting in an area of the plain less suitable for cavalry. Moreover, there was a real risk that, in case of defeat (probable, given their numerical inferiority, due to a ratio of about 1 to 2 and the real possibility, in the plain, of encirclement by Persian cavalry), they would leave Athens hopelessly exposed.

The Persians, however, also had reasons to stall: they probably hoped to take Athens through traitors, as they had already done with Eretria, and perhaps they, too, hoped that it would be the Greeks who would attack so that they could exploit the shock force of cavalry on terrain that lent itself well to such a maneuver; it is also possible that they considered the confrontation between their respective infantry a gamble, since the armor of the Athenian hoplites was decidedly superior to the light protection provided by the Persian infantrymen. This tactical reality was confirmed in subsequent clashes between Persians and Greeks at Thermopylae and Plataea during the Second Persian War.

The Athenian decision to attack

The stalemate was broken when the Athenians decided to attack. According to Herodotus, the decisive vote for that choice fell to the polemarch, who, having heard the arguments that Miltiades produced at the assembly of strategists, had to resolve the stalemate that had been created, with five votes against the attack and five in favor. Such a speech was perhaps invented by Herodotus, since in several passages it seems made on purpose for the reader and is largely implausible; moreover, one can see a common element with another speech he reported during the Persian wars, that of Dionysius of Phocaea before the battle of Lade, since in both there is a strong emphasis on the importance of the moment and the strong contrast between freedom and slavery. Herodotus dwells on the issue of the title of polemarch, which according to the historian was appointed by lot; however, this statement is at odds with Aristotle, who states that the lot was not introduced until 487-486 BCE. This has raised a lot of controversy: while some historians accuse Herodotus of anachronism (which is, moreover, frequent in his Histories), others think that the polemarchus was by lot even before 487 (as were the eponymous archon and archon basileus) or that it is Aristotle who is wrong.

What really prompted the Athenians to give battle is still unknown, and various hypotheses have been put forward.

The possible division of the Persian army

It is not known for certain whether all the Persian forces fought at Marathon: the debate about a possible division of the Persian army before the battle is still open.

Historians who reach this conclusion rely on several factors. First, Herodotus does not mention the role of cavalry during the battle, writes that the Athenians captured only seven ships, and reports the Athenians' rush to Phalerus after the battle. Furthermore, Nepot states that the Persians would have fought with 100,000 infantrymen and 10,000 cavalry (i.e., half the force, since he previously reported a total of 200,000 infantrymen). Finally, a proverb (in ancient Greek: χωρὶς ἱπππεῖς) extracted from the Suda states that the Athenians would decide to fight after the Ionians went to inform them of the departure of the Persian cavalry.

This theory, first enunciated in 1857-67 by Ernst Curtius, taken up in 1895 by Reginald Walter Macan, popularized in 1899 by John Arthur Ruskin Munro, and subsequently accepted with variations by various historians, holds that the Persian cavalry had left the plain for some reason and that the Greeks found it advantageous to exploit its absence. Numerous hypotheses have developed on the basis of the absence of cavalry:

However, the army division hypothesis, although accepted by most historians, has been subject to some criticism.

According to Peter Krentz, Miltiades decided to start the battle because at that time, as he had been able to ascertain from the Persians' movements in the preceding days, the horsemen were descending toward the plain from their camp in the valley of Tricorinthus at that time and thus could not intervene in any fighting.

The reconstruction of the battlefield is hotly debated among historians because of the difficult identification of many locations, the paucity of data (Herodotus does not describe the environment in which the clash took place at all), and the amount of modification the topography has undergone over the past 2,500 years.

Geomorphology and vegetation

The alluvial plain of Marathon is 9.6 long and 1.6 kilometers wide and was, according to the accounts of Grandfather of Panopolis, very fertile as well as rich in fennel bushes, whose term in ancient Greek, μάραθον or μάραθος, gave rise to the name; it is surrounded by heights of schist and marble material with a maximum height of 560 meters that jut out into the sea, northeast of the plain, to form the Cinosura peninsula. The crops did not hinder the movement of the armies except for vines south of the Caradro, a presence hypothesized by G. B. Grundy, which might have hindered the action of Persian cavalry.

The Caradro Creek, which flows from the Parnes and empties halfway down the coast, had very steep and deep banks in antiquity and was one of the waterways that promoted the enlargement of the plain by carrying debris downstream. Given how contradictory ancient maps turn out to be, some historians say the mouth has not moved since the 5th century B.C., while others think it flowed into the Great Swamp. Its importance during the battle was negligible, as during a dry summer it could not hinder the armies.

The extent of the Great Swamp (which today is 2 to 3 kilometers wide and has about 9.6 to 11.2 kilometers in circumference) at the time of the battle is still debated: it is not known exactly whether the formation of the Great Swamp, isolated from the rest of the sea by a sand cordon, is to be dated before or after the battle. Pausanias claimed that it was a lake in communication with the sea by an outfall and that it contained fresh water, which, however, became salty near the mouth. Some scholars, prompted by the fact that it is not known how deep the passage between sea and marsh was, have theorized that some Persian ships were anchored within this body of water.

The principal of the springs (still present today) that feed the streams of the plain is that of Megalo Mati, probably to be identified with the Macaria spring mentioned by Pausanias, which at one time, according to Strabo's account, carried water to Athens. Since water supply possibilities were equal for the areas where the two armies camped, the Greeks, far fewer in number than their aggressors, had enough water.

Submerged before 18000 B.C.E. and again between 8000 and 6000 B.C.E., the Marathon plain was later expanded by streams that passed through and deposited sediment there, but it is not known exactly how extensive it was in 490 B.C.E., since no soil core studies have ever been carried out. Some scholars speculate that the coastline did not move too far from 490 BCE.

Places existing before the battle

Hotly debated is the location of the sanctuary of Heracles at which the Greeks camped, placed according to Lucian near the tomb of Eurystheus. Of the many theories put forward in modern times, those that see its location at the mouth of the Vrana valley or near Valaria have not been refuted because of the presence of foundations in the former case and that of inscriptions about Heracles in the latter, corroborated as well by the location. Cornelius Nepot devotes special attention to the description of the Athenian camp, describing it as well protected.

Even for the location of the Marathon demo none of the various theories can be said to be certain in the absence of decisive evidence. Many theories have already been refuted, and those that place it at the southwest entrance to the plain or in the Plasi area, areas where the finds are of later date, however, remain valid. The absence of finds could be due to the advance of the sea or to the fact that the demo was composed of scattered dwellings.

Battle-related facilities

Artaferne's horse troughs are located east of the lake, either in a small man-made cave or in niches carved into the rock halfway up a hillside above Cato Suli, called "Artaferne's troughs" by the locals: the latter theory agrees with Krentz's claim that places (like Leake) the cavalry camp in the plain of Trichorinth.

Inhabited from Neolithic to Mycenaean times, Pan's cave, repopulated after the battle and visited by Pausanias, was rediscovered in 1958: an inscription with a dedication to Pan is found there.


According to the opinion of all the sources, the Athenians were buried under the mound called Soros, which was drilled several times between the 18th and 19th centuries but is still in good condition today: its location near the battlefield, however, is contrary to Athenian custom, although it does not appear to be where the clash necessarily took place. The presence of arrowheads suggested that the earth had been taken from the battlefield, Next to the Soros was another smaller mound later destroyed, where the Plataeans may have been buried. In any case, the Soros is of little help in reconstructing the battle.

In one of the burial mounds found in 1970 by Spyridōn Marinatos were found bodies, identified as those of the Plataeans since all the dead were men, and there are similarities between the pottery in this tomb and that found in the Athenian mound: from this discovery Marinatos was able to draw the supposed proof that Pausanias was wrong in asserting that the Plataeans were buried with the freed slaves. However, the distance from the Athenian tomb, the remoteness from the Greek lines, and the cremation of the bodies suggest that it was a private tomb, in spite of its location on the road connecting Plataea and the plain.

Untraced by Pausanias, the mass grave where the slain 6,400 Persians were thrown was identified by Hauptmann Eschenburg in an area adjoining the Great Swamp, where many bones were found: no other theories have been formulated.


About 600 from the Soros is the Pyrgos or monument to Miltiades, whose ancient white marble roof disappeared during the 19th century, as by 1890 only bricks and mortar remained. Eugene Vanderpool speculated that the Pyrgos was a medieval tower built from the remains of ancient monuments on the plain.

Eugene Vanderpool, excavating near the Panagia chapel and finding several fragments traceable to an Ionic column erected between 450 B.C. and 475 B.C., believed he had found the white marble trophy mentioned by Pausanias. According to modern criticism, this work was erected on the very day of the battle by hanging Persian weapons and was brought to its present form by Cimon around 460 B.C.E.: it stands at the spot where the enemies' flight began. At the 2004 Olympics, a similar trophy was erected next to the remains of the original.

Deployments of armies

It is still debated among historians the position of the deployed armies, with a front line about 1.5 kilometers long.

Callimachus, as a polemarch, commanded the right wing of the Greek deployment, while the Platæan allies were deployed at the back of the left wing; on the exact order of the Athenian tribes, which quoting Herodotus were arranged "according to their order," The two tribes that formed the central column of the deployment, namely the Leontid tribe led by Themistocles and the Antiochid tribe led by Aristides, were deployed in four ranks in contrast to the others, which were instead in rows of eight.

All that is known of the other army is that the Persians and Sacians were deployed in the center, while the wings gathered weaker troops. Regarding the ambiguous issue of cavalry, many lean toward the hypothesis that they were present at Marathon at the time of the battle (it is possible that they contributed to the initial Persian victory in the center): various historians think that the cavalry was taken by surprise and did not have time to prepare or at any rate could not have influenced the battle much (the phalanx had an advantage in frontal clashes and was protected on the flanks by Mount Agrieliki and the sea-if one follows the hypothesis of armies perpendicular to the sea), since Herodotus does not mention it.

The Greek charge

Herodotus states that the distance between the two armies at the time of the battle was at least eight stadia, Herodotus reports that the Athenians, after officiating at sacrifices to the gods that were successful, traveled the entire distance separating them from their enemies "at a run" (in ancient Greek: δρόμοι, although some believe it should be translated as "at a fast pace") and adds that all this caused astonishment among the Persian ranks, since no other Greek army faced had ever initiated such a maneuver. In particular, the attackers thought according to Herodotus that the Athenians were mad and destined for certain death since they were outnumbered, tired from the race, and lacking horses and archers. Herodotus also reports that the Greeks, before Marathon, considered the Persian army invincible: the mere name of the Medes caused terror among them.

However, the alleged eight-stadium run has not convinced most historians, who are almost all skeptical about its veracity.


Continuously under fire from the archers, the Athenians advanced in the direction of the Persians and clashed with the opposing units. This is the description of the impact given by Thomas Holland:

The vigorous clash caused the shattering of the central sector of the Greek army, which was pressed by the center of the Persian array; however, the wings of the Athenians, more numerous than usual, succeeded first in blocking the advance of the Persian lateral sectors and later in closing on the central column, which thus found itself surrounded: the men, in panic, retreated in disorder toward the fleet pursued by the Greeks; some Persian soldiers ran instead in the direction of the Great Swamp, where they drowned. The Athenians, forcing the enemy to flee in the direction of the ships, succeeded in seizing seven triremes: the others managed to set sail.

Herodotus states that they fought "for a long time" (in ancient Greek: χρόνος πολλός), but he does not specify the duration any better: it is not clear whether or not his definition of duration should include preparation, deployment, ritual sacrifices, hand-to-hand combat, pursuit, treatment of the wounded, and recovery of the fallen. Although information on the subject is almost nonexistent several historians, referring to the Roman writer Publius Vegetius Renatus, believe that the battle lasted two to three hours or perhaps even less (others, noting that Herodotus writes that the battle of Imera also lasted "a long time" and then specifies "from dawn to late evening," think that even at Marathon the fighting dragged on all day.


According to Herodotus, the Athenians lost 192 men: the dead included the polemarch Callimachus who fell fighting by the ships, the strategist Stesilaus son of Thrasilaus, and Cinegyrus brother of Aeschylus, whose story was later fictionalized by Marcus Junianus Justinus. The tally of losses is generally accepted because it is known that Pausanias was an eyewitness to the list of fallen divided by tribe.

As for the Persians, on the other hand, the figure given by Herodotus of 6,400 fallen is a matter of debate: although it has been pointed out that the Athenians, having pledged to Artemis to sacrifice to her a goat for every Persian killed, should have counted them very accurately, it must be remembered that according to Pausanias most of the attackers drowned in the Great Swamp and thus could not be counted.

The number of Persian ships captured by the Greeks, seven according to Herodotus, also raised some puzzlement, since such a victory in theory would have allowed the Greeks to capture more. It is worth noting, however, that the landing beach had easily defensible access and that, perhaps, the vessels had landed inside the Great Swamp, which offered numerous points for quick embarkation. In the opinion of those who support the theory of the division of the Persian army, the few ships captured indicate the presence of a modest number of troops, whose embarkation was relatively quick. Nor can the possibility be ruled out (following Herodotus' account) that when the victorious Greeks arrived at the Persian ships, wing troops had probably already embarked. Finally, it is uncertain whether Hippias took part in the fighting, although it seems difficult considering his age; according to Justin he fell in battle, according to the Suda he died shortly after the battle at Lemnos.

The signal with the shield

Herodotus reports that after the battle someone made a light signal with a shield directed at the Persian ships, a fact according to him undeniable. There was suspicion in Athens that such a move was planned with the support of the noble family of the Alcmeonides, but Herodotus flatly rejects this accusation, since according to him the Alcmeonides hated tyrants and therefore did not want a resettlement of Hippias; the Alcmeonides were also said to have bribed Pythia to persuade the Spartans to free Athens. Ultimately Herodotus states that he is unable to point to the person responsible for this signal.

Those who support the truthfulness of the signal are divided on the location of its source, its significance, and who is responsible for it.

However, the veracity of the signal has been questioned several times.

In the end, it seems that most scholars are unanimous on the probable nonexistence of the signal, both because of obvious technical difficulties and because of problems of implausibility due to the strong political connotation of the episode itself, which seems to be precisely a rumor put about by opponents of the Alcmeonides. Nevertheless, the question is certainly open and there is no shortage of contrary theories, even recent ones.

The legendary race of Pheidippides

A legend traditionally attributed to Herodotus, but popularized by Plutarch, who in turn quotes Heraclides Ponticus in his work On the Glory of the Athenians, claims that Pheidippides (called by Plutarch Eucle or Tersippus) after the battle would run all the way to Athens where, having uttered the famous phrase "We have won" (Ancient Greek: Νενικήκαμεν, Nenikèkamen), he would die from exertion. Lucian of Samosata also reports the same legend, calling the runner Pheidippides, a name preferred to Pheidippides in the Middle Ages, but not very common today.

Historians believe that this legend is merely an amalgamation of the actual run up to Sparta made by the emerodrome before the battle to ask the Lacedaemonians for support from the Athenians against Persian aggression; the strenuous march from Marathon to Athens was in fact made by the Athenians after the battle to anticipate a possible Persian landing in front of the city.

The march of the Greek army toward Athens

Herodotus reports that as soon as the battle was over, the Persian fleet, having taken on board the prisoners of Eretria whom it had left near the island of Styra, circumnavigated Cape Sunius bound for Phalerus; the Athenians, realizing the danger looming over their city, returned there on forced marches with the utmost haste and encamped near the shrine of Heracles at Cynosarge, anticipating the arrival of the Persians: they, once they arrived, remained anchored in front of the coast for a while but finally gave up and set sail for Asia. Plutarch points out that the Athenians left in Marathon the contingent of the Antiochid tribe commanded by the strategist Aristides to guard the prisoners and booty, while the rest of the army rushed to Athens; this last detail seems to be implied by Herodotus, who does not, however, state it explicitly.

Plutarch's statement seems to validate a fact implied by Herodotus but is not unanimously accepted by scholars, as some argue for a return to Athens on the same day, while others postpone it to the next day. There are several reasons to support the first hypothesis.

Many, however, are also the reasons of those who argue the impossibility and futility of this grueling march.

In conclusion, although based on the studies of Casson, Hodge and Holoka it seems clear that the march did not occur on the same day as the battle, historians still disagree on this point.

The burial of the fallen

According to Peter Krentz Aristides, who remained on the battlefield with his own troops, ordered preparations to begin for the cremation of the bodies of the Athenians after the departure of the rest of the army: the chosen place was marked with a layer of sand and greenish earth, and a brick cremation plinth, about 1 meter wide and 5 meters long, was built on top of it, which supported the pyre. The mound that became known as the "Soros" was then built on that site, on top of which headstones were affixed bearing the names of the 192 fallen divided by tribe they belonged to. This is the epigram composed by Simonides for the fallen:

The Plataeans and slaves who fell in battle were buried in a second mound, the location of which is debated.

The Spartan army did not arrive in Marathon until the next day, having traveled 220 kilometers in just three days: they wished to see the fallen of the clash. The Spartans, having had a chance to visit the battlefield to see the bodies of the Persians, agreed that the Athenian victory had been a true triumph.

After this visit the Persians were buried in a mass grave, possibly discovered in 1884-85 by Hauptmann Eschenburg.

One of the most striking aspects of the Greek victory lies in the gigantic disproportion between the potential opposing forces: in 490 BC. Athens had a population of about 140,000, while the Persian empire, which in seventy years had conquered much of the known world, creating the largest dominion in history up to that time, numbered seventeen to thirty-five million. The main reasons for this unexpected outcome are, according to historians, the presence of better commanders and weapons on the Greek side, as well as the ineffectiveness of the Persian tactics adopted for this battle.

With regard to tactical superiority, the merits of which are to be attributed to Callimachus and Miltiades (it is not known exactly to which of the two goes the greater honor), it can be seen that the pliability of the deployment to the situation was a key aspect. Generally, the strategy used by the Hellenic armies was that the annihilation of the enemy front was done through the use of the oplitic phalanx in hand-to-hand combat, partly because the tactics developed in Greece did not take into account the use of toxotai (archers) and hippikon (horsemen) in battle. The phalanx, then was excellent in frontal clashes, but enemy cavalry could strike it on the flanks or break its deployment by exploiting the gaps left by those who were killed or overwhelmed. The lengthening, in this case, of the deployment to match the Persian one achieved by weakening the center; the running attack perhaps intended to anticipate the cavalry's intervention (probably initiated when the infantrymen came within range of the archers), and finally the encirclement of the Persian center were decisive for the course of the battle.

Concerning the ineffectiveness of Persian tactics, it has been pointed out that the Persian fighting style was more suited to the endless Asiatic plains than to the modest, narrow and irregular Greek plains, where the maneuvering power of the cavalry was partly nullified. In fact, the strategy adopted by the Persian army involved breaking the enemy front by massive use of the archers and cavalry, which in the boundless Asiatic plains caused heavy casualties and disoriented the opponents, who were then annihilated by the intervention of the infantry. Cavalry, a key element of Persian tactics, was lightly armed (with bow and javelin) and thus was very fast and maneuverable.It appears that unlike the Greeks, the Persians made no attempt to adapt their deployment to the situation. On the absence or unimportance in the clash of the Persian cavalry, so important in the tactics of this army, various hypotheses have been proposed: they re-embarked before the battle, the horses were still watering, took part in the battle but their action was unimpressive against the disciplined and heavily armed Greek army.

Fundamental finally is the superiority of Hellenic armament: the Persian army depended closely on its archers, on foot or on horseback, but the Greeks' use of Corinthian helmets, panoplia, and schinieri put a serious strain on their effectiveness.

In hand-to-hand combat the clash was clearly to the advantage of the Greeks, who were better organized and equipped with heavy armament. The Persians used spears from 1.8 to 2 meters long and swords from 0.38 to 0.41 meters long, weapons suitable against a demoralized, disorganized army already partly disrupted by archers and cavalry; Greek spears, on the other hand, ranged from 2.1 to 2.7 meters and swords from 0.61 to 0.74 meters. The Persians had a wicker shield, usually used to defend against arrows, and only a minority of men wore light flak armor; most of the troops on the wings lacked it altogether. The Greeks, on the other hand, wielded a wooden shield covered with bronze, used not only for defense but also as an additional weapon, and wore helmets of excellent workmanship to prevent head wounds. Many historians have also pointed out that the Athenians fought for freedom, a cause that gave them strong ideological motivation to resist and win.

In conclusion, the Persians, tactically inferior, almost untrained in close combat, equipped with inferior weapons, and inadequately protected, were yes adept at defeating the Greek center, but in the end they had to succumb to Hellenic superiority and suffered a severe defeat.

In ancient times

The defeat at Marathon made a marginal dent in the military resources of the Achaemenid empire and had no repercussions outside Greece; Persian propaganda for obvious reasons did not admit defeat, and Darius I immediately prepared for a rematch. Following the burning of Persepolis, which occurred with the conquest of the city by Alexander the Great 160 years later, there are no written records left contemporary with the battle, but Dion Chrysostom, who lived in the first century B.C., made it known that the Persians aimed only to occupy Naxos and Eretria and that only a small contingent fought at Marathon: this version, while containing much truth, nevertheless remains a political version of an unfortunate event.

In contrast, in Greece such a triumph had enormous symbolic value for the poleis: it was in fact the first defeat inflicted by individual city armies on the Persian army, whose invincibility had been disproven. Moreover, the victory demonstrated how it was possible to defend city autonomy from Achaemenid control.

The battle was significant for the formation of the young Athenian democracy, marking the beginning of its golden age: it demonstrated that city cohesion made it possible to cope with difficult or desperate situations. Before the battle Athens was just one polis among many, but after 490 B.C. it achieved such prestige that it was then able to claim its position as the leader of Greece (and later of the Delio-Attic League) in the struggle against the so-called "barbarians."

In Athenian tradition, the victories of Marathon and Salamis were often remembered together: sometimes Salamis took precedence because the invasion they faced had been more impressive, had driven the Persians away for good, and represented the beginning of Athenian naval power in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, but in art, monuments, plays, and orations (especially "funeral" orations in honor of those fallen in battle) Marathon was cited first as an example of excellence (in ancient Greek: ἀριστεία). The importance given to Marathon by the Athenians is also evidenced by the numerous monuments dedicated to it: the fresco of the Stoà Pecile (mid-5th century BCE), the enlargement of the Soros also embellished by the epigram of Simonides, the building of a monument to Miltiades at Marathon and a second at the Delphic oracle (mid-5th century BCE, probably desired by Cimon in honor of his father). Strong was the cultural influence of the clash: the famous Athenian playwright Aeschylus in his epitaph regarded participation in the battle as the most important undertaking of his life, so much so that it overshadowed his own artistic activity:

Moreover, the veterans of Marathon (Ancient Greek: Μαραθωνομάχαι) are often cited by Aristophanes in his comedies as the ultimate expression of what Athenian citizens could be, and had been, at their best.

Marathon finally consecrated the power and importance in military thought attached to the oplitic array, which until then had been considered inferior to cavalry. Developed by the individual Greek poleis during their internal wars, it had not been able to show its real possibilities since the city armies fought in the same manner and thus did not confront an army used to a different style of warfare: an event that occurred at Marathon against the Persians, who had made the massive use of archers (even mounted) and lightly armed troops the mainstay of their tactics. Infantry was indeed vulnerable to cavalry (as reflected in the Greek caution in the Battle of Plataea) but, if used under the right circumstances, could prove decisive.

Modern opinions

In 1846 John Stuart Mill expressed himself by arguing how the Battle of Marathon had been more important than the Battle of Hastings for the history of England while Edward Shepherd Creasy, in 1851, included it in his essay The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was widely believed that the victory of Marathon had been pivotal to the birth of Western civilization (according to John F.C. Fuller Marathon had been "the first womb of Europe"), as evidenced by many coeval writings.

Since the twentieth century, especially after World War I, many scholars have departed from this line of thought: they suggested that the Persians might have had a positive influence on Greece, which was always torn apart by fratricidal wars among the poleis, and pointed out that the battle of Marathon ultimately carried considerably less weight than Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea; some historians, however, argued against the latter point, stating that Marathon, by postponing the second Persian invasion, gave the Athenians time to discover and exploit the silver mines of the Laurium, the proceeds of which financed the construction of the fleet of 200 triremes desired by Themistocles; these were the ships that, in 480 B.C. C., faced and held their own against the Persians at Artemisium and Salamis. Despite such new perspectives, some twentieth-century and contemporary historians have continued to regard Marathon as a key turning point in Greek and Western history.

Intervention of deities

The most famous of the legends associated with the Battle of Marathon is the one concerning the legendary emerodrome Pheidippides, who according to reports by Lucian of Samosata announced victory to the Athenians after running 40 kilometers from Marathon to Athens.

It is also reported that Pheidippides had earlier reached Sparta running to ask for the support of the Spartiates in the battle: Herodotus reports that he had also visited the temple of Pan on the way there or back. Pan reportedly asked the intimidated Pheidippides why the Athenians did not honor him, and he replied that from then on they would: the god, confident of his promise and understanding the runner's good faith, would then appear during the battle, causing the Persians to panic. Later a sacred altar placed north of the Acropolis was dedicated to Pan, in which annual sacrifices were performed.

Similarly, the Athenians dedicated sacrifices to Artemis the Huntress (Ancient Greek: ἀγροτέρας θυσία, agrotèras thysìa) during a special holiday, mindful of a vow made by the city to the goddess before the battle, which committed the citizens to immolate to her a number of goats equal to the number of enemies killed in battle: as the number was too large, it was decided to offer 500 goats per year. Xenophon reports how this custom was alive even in the period contemporary with him, some ninety years after the conflict.

Intervention of heroes

Plutarch mentions that the Athenians said they saw the ghost of the mythical king Theseus during the battle: this supposition is also supported by his depiction in the wall painting of the Stoà Pecile, in which he fights flanked by other heroes and the twelve gods of Olympus. According to Nicholas Sekunda this legend could be the result of propaganda made in the 460s B.C. by Cimon, son of Miltiades.

Pausanias reports that a rough-looking peasant, who after slaughtering Persians with a plow, would also take part in the battle, disappeared into thin air; when the Athenians went to consult the Delphic oracle on the matter, Apollo replied to them that he worshipped Echetlos ("plow-handled") as a hero.

Another mysterious presence that would have fought the battle of Marathon would have been, according to Claudius Elianus, a dog belonging to an Athenian soldier, who had brought it with him to the camp: such an animal, too, would be reproduced in the painting of the Stoà Pecile.


Herodotus reports that during the battle an Athenian named Epizelo was permanently blinded without being wounded; Herodotus also relates that Epizelo used to tell of being attacked by a giant hoplite, whose beard covered his shield in full, who passing by him killed the soldier beside him.

Although Mars was blamed for this by the historian, it may have been a case of post-traumatic stress disorder: such an explanation would agree both with Herodotus' account and with an excessive level of cortisone in the soldier's blood when confronted with an objectively stressful situation. The excess cortisone would have led to the collapse of capillaries in the back of the eye and thus to a central serous retinopathy.


Brother of the more famous Aeschylus, according to Herodotus the Athenian Cynegyrus showed exceptional bravery by trying to hold a Persian ship with his right hand and dying when a Persian chopped it off; Marcus Junianus Justinus added that, after losing his right hand, he clung to the ship's prow first with his left and then, having chopped it off as well, with his teeth. His legendary courage inspired Plutarch, Mark Antony Polemon, and, according to Pliny the Elder, even the painter Panenus.

In the following years Darius began to assemble a second boundless army to subdue Greece: this plan was delayed because of the insurrection of Egypt, conquered earlier by Cambyses II of Persia. Darius died shortly thereafter, and it was his son Xerxes I, who succeeded him to the throne, who tamed the rebellion; he then swiftly resumed preparations for a military campaign against the polis of Athens and more generally against all of Greece.

The Second Persian War began in 480 BC with the Battle of Thermopylae, marked by the glorious defeat of the Greek hoplites led by Sparta's King Leonidas I, and the naval battle of Cape Artemisius, which instead saw confrontation with an undecided outcome between the two fleets. Despite the difficult start, the war ended with three Hellenic victories, respectively at Salamis (which marked the beginning of the Greek redemption

Toward the end of the 19th century, the idea of starting new Olympic Games materialized: this proposal was put forward by Pierre de Coubertin. When looking for an event that could recall the ancient glory of Greece, the choice fell on the marathon race, which had been proposed by Michel Bréal; the founder also supported this choice, which saw the light of day during the first modern Olympiad held in Athens in 1896. In the need to establish a standard distance to be run during the race, it was decided to refer to the legend of Pheidippides. The marathon runners therefore had to run from Marathon to the Panathinaikos Stadium in Athens (for a distance of about 40 kilometers), and the first edition was won by a Greek himself, Spiridon Louis: the event soon became widely popular and many cities began to organize annual ones. In 1921 the distance was officially set at 42 kilometers and 195 meters.

For a list of most of the publications in English or translated into English concerning the Battle of Marathon in the years 1850-2012 see Fink 2014, pp. 217-226.


  1. Battle of Marathon
  2. Battaglia di Maratona

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