Battle of Marathon

At the Battle of Marathon, soldiers of the democratic city-state of Athens inflicted a spectacular defeat on a much larger Persian force.

Summary of Event

In the late summer of 490 b.c.e., a Persian force of some twenty-five thousand arrived by sea at the plain of Marathon in northeast Attica, about 26 miles (42 kilometers) from the city of Athens. Its leaders were Datis and Artaphernes, agents of Darius the Great, known as the Great King, the King of Kings, and the King by the Grace of Ahura Mazda. They had chosen this particular landing point because it allowed deployment of their cavalry and because they were accompanied by the exiled former tyrant of Athens, Hippias, whose family had holdings and supporters in this region of Attica. Hippias probably anticipated an exchange of intelligence, supplies, and cooperation for the position of satrap (provincial governor) in a conquered Attica and perhaps in a Persian-dominated Greece as a whole. Datis
Darius the Great
Hippias of Athens
Miltiades the Younger

Whatever his ultimate designs, Darius the Great’s immediate intent was punitive because the Athenians had sent twenty ships to assist their fellow Greeks across the Aegean Sea during the Ionian Revolt of 499-494 b.c.e., taking part in the destruction of Sardis, the capital of the Persian satrapy in western Asia Minor (498). Though the revolt had been crushed and the Ionian city of Miletus destroyed in retaliation, the Athenians had not been made to pay the price of their interference. This was an intolerable situation for Darius the Great. The historian Herodotus reports that Darius had a servant whose sole function was to utter the words “remember the Athenians” every time the king took a meal. The army landing at Marathon was charged with settling the score with the Athenians.

The Battle of Marathon.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The Athenian assembly of citizens met in emergency session and, rather than postpone the inevitable by sitting behind the city walls and allowing the Persians a free hand in Attica, authorized an expedition to Marathon. A force of nine thousand hoplites (heavily armored infantrymen) marched to the plain and set up an encampment. They were joined by an additional one thousand or so hoplites from the neighboring Boeotian town of Plataea. In both cases, these numbers represented every man that could be put in the field. Still, they were outnumbered at least two-to-one. A professional, all-day runner named Philippides (or Pheidippides) was sent to Sparta to request assistance. He set out one day and arrived the next, covering a distance of about 150 miles (240 kilometers). The Spartans, who possessed the finest hoplite warriors in the world, promised to send reinforcements in a few days, as soon as they had completed an important religious festival. They arrived a day late.

The Athenian force was led by its “joint chiefs,” the committee of ten strategoi (generals). Most of the panel recognized Miltiades the Younger as their best military mind and ceded to him their turns as commander in chief (the position rotated on a daily basis). As it happened, the battle occurred on his designated day of command. Miltiades’ tactical arrangements largely determined the outcome of the battle.

The battle probably commenced in the morning because Herodotus says that the fighting lasted “a long time,” probably most of the day. Miltiades met the danger of envelopment by the larger enemy force by thinning the center of his phalanx battle formation (typically eight ranks deep) both to stretch his line to equal that of the Persians and to strengthen his wings. As the battle opened, he ordered his advancing formation to move at the double once they came in range of Persian javelins and arrows (their preferred weapons). Having reduced the effect of that barrage, the Greek army closed fast on the opposing foot soldiers, attacking them with thrusting spears and swords. Both enemy wings were beaten back and put to flight. The Persian center pushed back the thinned Greek center but soon found itself enclosed by the redirected phalanxes of the victorious Greek wings. A slaughterous rout resulted. The Greek forces pursued the enemy some 3 to 4 miles (5 to 6 kilometers) across the Marathon plain back to the Persian camp and to the ships beached along the shore. There was fierce fighting here as the Persians desperately scrambled aboard their ships and embarked. Several vessels were actually captured by the Greeks.

A day or two later, the Persian fleet made the 70-mile (113-kilometer) journey around Attica and put into the Athenian harbor at Phaleron. There they sighted the Greek hoplites awaiting them, arrayed in good order. Opting not to confront those formidable infantrymen again, the Persians set sail for home.


The “barbarian” menace was repelled with crushing effectiveness at Marathon: Persian dead numbered 6,400 as opposed to 192 on the Greek side. As a special honor, the Athenians buried their dead on the site, where their tomb-mound (the soros) may still be seen today.

The victory of the Athenians, particularly because it was won without the assistance of Sparta’s vaunted infantry, was a source of intense pride. Veterans of the battle were known as Marathonomachoi (Marathon warriors). The Greek playwright Aeschylus, whose tragedies are masterpieces of world literature, chose to record in his epitaph only his service at Marathon, where his brother had been killed in the fighting along the shore. Famous panel paintings depicted scenes from the battle in the Stoa Poecile (Painted Stoa) in Athens’ agora (city-center). As the Greek Thucydides reports in his history of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians could still—sixty years later—throw it in the Spartans’ faces that at Marathon they (with a few Plataeans) had stood alone to save the Greek world.

The threat of Persian dominance recurred in 480 b.c.e., when Xerxes I, Darius’s son and successor, led an enormous expeditionary force into the Greek mainland. Then, a federation of some thirty-one city-states joined forces to repel the invasion and save Greek civilization. However, this did not diminish the achievement or the example of the stalwart infantrymen whom Miltiades led in defense of the soil of democratic Athens against overwhelming odds on a hot and bloody summer’s day in 490 b.c.e.

Further Reading

  • Hammond, N. G. L. “The Campaign and the Battle of Marathon.” In Studies in Greek History: A Companion Volume to A History of Greece to 322 b.c.
    Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1973. The author, for many years the leading English-speaking ancient historian, possessed a masterly knowledge of the sources for the battle and made detailed inspections of the Marathon plain; this is still the authoritative modern discussion.
  • Hanson, Victor D. The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Hanson vividly reconstructs the experience of heavy infantry combat in ancient Greece.
  • Herodotus. Herodotus: The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. A new revised edition, with new introductory material by John Marincola. Book 6 is the earliest and best ancient source for the Battle of Marathon; a stirring account.
  • Holoka, James P. “Marathon and the Myth of the Same-Day March.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 38 (1997): 329-53. A corrective to misleading claims, both ancient and modern, about the movements of Greek and Persian forces during the battle and its aftermath.
  • Lazenby, J. F. The Defence of Greece, 490-479 b.c.
    Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1993. A reliable and very readable history of the Greco-Persian wars in general and of the Battle of Marathon in particular.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Darius the Great; Miltiades the Younger; Pheidippides; Themistocles; Xerxes I. Marathon, Battle of (490 b.c.e.)