Battle 1 Marathon, 490 BC


Who fought
: Greeks (Mitiades) vs. Persians (Datis).
What was at stake: The survival of democracy.

Callimachus studied his Persian opponents from the heights above the plain
of Marathon. As expected, there was a lot of cavalry—mostly horse archers.
There were also foot archers and infantry spearmen. It was hard to esti-
mate their number, spread out as they were. There had to be at least as
many as the 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plateans he commanded. There were prob-
ably many more. The Great King had unlimited resources. The Persian infantry were
not as well armored as the Greeks, and their spears were shorter. But the Persian
strength was always their cavalry, both lancers and horse archers. Plains like Marathon
made it possible to use cavalry effectively, but plains were scarce in Greece. That was
most likely why the Persians chose to land here, a two-days-march away from Athens.
If only the Spartans would arrive soon. With Spartan reinforcements, the Greeks,
although all infantry, might be able to drive the Barbarians into the sea. (To the
Greeks, all foreigners were "barbarians," who made sounds like "bahbahbah" instead
of speaking Greek.)

The Greeks had sent Pheidippides, a professional runner, to ask for Spartan assis-
tance. The Spartans were willing, but they said that because of a local religious festival
they'd have to delay their departure. Meanwhile, the Athenians and their Platean allies
had been holding the mountain passes. The 10 generals, each commanding an Athe-
nian regiment, could not agree whether they should continue holding their ground
or whether they should attack the Persians. Although Callimachus was polemarch, or
titular commander, he had only one vote in the counsel of war. Field command, when
it came to fighting, rotated among the generals, each one having a day to command
the entire army. Miltiades, one of the generals, was rabidly anti-Persian. He had been
badgering Callimachus to vote in favor of attacking. So far the polemarch had not
made up his mind.
Callimachus could think of no Athenian general who ever had to make such a
momentous decision. It might determine the fate of an idea that was radically new
in the civilized world—rule by the people, democracy. For as long as anyone could
remember, Icings, who claimed some sort of connection with the gods, ruled Greece.
Then most cities overthrew their kings and accepted rulers (strongmen called tyrants)
who claimed no divine connection. Now Athens had deposed its last tyrant, Hippias,
and passed laws against tyrants.
The whole situation was very strange. The Great King, Darius, had ordered his
son-in-law, Mardonius, to depose tyrants among the King's Ionian Greek subjects.
The tyrants had led the subject Greeks in an unsuccessful revolt. Darius replaced the
tyrants with pseudo democracies. The Ionian citizens could make their own laws, but
all would have to be approved by the Great King. One of the tyrants deposed was
Miltiades, the general who so ardently wanted to attack the Persians. Miltiades had
a personal grudge. Born in Athens, he was an Athenian citizen. But he had become
tyrant of the Cheronese (modern Gallipoli). When he fled back to Athens, he was
tried under the anti-tyrant law. But while tyrant, Miltiades had conquered the island
of Lemnos and given it to his home city. This earned Miltiades enough favor in

Athens to win him not only acquittal, but election as one of the generals. There was
still, however, a faction in Athens that despised the former tyrant.
Athens and Eretria had helped the Ionian rebels, which, the Persians said, was
why they were there. They were going to punish Athens and Eretria for their med-
dling. But Callimachus knew that Darius wanted all of Greece, and many Greek cities
had already submitted to him. The biggest holdouts were Athens and Sparta.
Suddenly Callimachus saw movement in the Persian army. The Barbarians had
begun moving their horses toward the shore where their 600 ships were beached.
Callimachus made up his mind. It was time to attack now, Spartans or no Spartans.

The Great King

The Greeks called Darius, the Emperor of Persia, the "Great King." In Susa, his
capital, he waited for word from the Aegean. The Greeks were a headache. As long
as some were outside the empire, they would incite those who were inside, to rebel.
But conquest of Greece would not be easy. Mardonius had learned that. After putting
down the Ionian revolt, he continued into mainland Greece. Thessaly had submitted,
but the semi-nomadic Thracians had put up a stiff fight before they accepted Persian
rule. Then the sea intervened. A tremendous storm wrecked the Persian fleet that had
been supplying the Persian army. Mardonius had to withdraw.

Greece was mostly barren and mountainous. The Greek cities depended on com-
merce for food. No large army could live off the land in Greece. Such an army would
have to be supplied by sea. But the sea was treacherous. And the Greeks were worse.
Just 45 years earlier, the warships of one small Greek city, Phocaea, had destroyed
a Carthaginian fleet twice its size. The Carthaginians were colonists of the Phoeni-
cians, who supplied Persian naval power. Greek sailors had colonized not only the
Ionian coast of Asia Minor, but the Dardanelles, the Crimea, Cyrene in Africa, Mas-
sillia (modern Marseille), and both the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Spain. If
the Greek cities united, they could wipe out any fleet Darius could muster.
 
Fighting Greeks on land was not much easier. The Greeks had devised a military
system that was ideal for their narrow mountain valleys. It was all infantry, based on
heavy infantry protected from head to foot by heavy armor. The Greek hoplite wore
a bronze helmet that covered everything but his eyes and mouth, an armor corselet,
and greaves to protect the part of his legs visible from behind a huge bronze-faced
shield. Arrows would not penetrate his armor except at close range. He carried a long
spear, with a short sword as a secondary weapon. The Greek heavy infantry attacked
in long, straight lines many ranks deep, called a phalanx. They marched in step, keep-
ing time with the music of flutes. Greek mercenary hoplites were in demand all over
the civilized world. Man for man, they were the best infantry in the world.

Greece, then, could only be conquered with overwhelming numbers, which
would have to be supplied by sea. But depending on ships, in the face of Greek naval
power and the stormy Aegean, was risky in the extreme. The conquest of Greece
would require subtlety.

But Darius had not gotten to where he was by being stupid. He had usurped the
throne of Persia, restored Cyrus the Great's crumbling empire, and extended its borders
into India, across the Hellespont into Europe, up into the barren steppes of Turkestan
and down the Nile into the deserts of Sudan. Darius would not try to overwhelm the
Greeks. He would wage war on their minds.

By posing as a patron of democracy, Darius had convinced many Greeks that
Persian overlordship was no bad thing. They had given his envoys earth and water as
tokens of submission. But the Spartans had thrown his envoy into a well to get water,
and the Athenians dropped Darius's representative into a pit to gather earth.
Psychological warfare against Sparta was almost impossible. The city-state was
run like an army; dissent was also impossible. But Athens had opposing factions.

Darius sent agents to the Athenians who hated Miltiades. They pointed to flourish-
ing democracies in Ionia and promised that if the Athenian out-party opened the city
gates to Persian troops, they would be the in-party. The Athenian dissenters pointed
out that there was no way they could do that while the in-party controlled the army.
The Persian agents promised to lure the army out of the city. The Athenian traitors
agreed to help.

Darius's plan called for a swift strike directly across the Aegean. The expedition-
ary force would be comparatively small—only what could be transported on 600
ships. It would quickly take tiny Eretria, then lure the Athenian army away from
the city. With their troops away, the Athenian traitors would let the Persians in, and
Athens would be conquered before help arrived from Sparta or anywhere else.
Mardonius had been wounded on his expedition to Greece, and he hadn't been
notably successful. Darius gave the command to his nephew, Artaphernes, and a
Median general named Datis. Datis, a brave and experienced soldier, would actually
command.

The military mind

Datis was a good commander. He had to be to have achieved his rank without
being an ethnic Persian. But he wasn't subtle. When he attacked Eretria, on the island
of Euboea, the Eretrians resisted for six days. Then traitors opened the city gates to
the Persians. It is not known whether or not Persian agents had approached them
before the attack, but it seems likely. What is known is that Datis, once inside, fol-
lowed standard operating procedure. He sacked the city, burned the temples, and car-
ried the inhabitants off into slavery. Then Datis embarked for the trip to Marathon.
He waited for the Athenian army to appear, as expected. Then he waited for the
signal telling him the gates of Athens would be open. He waited and waited. He knew
that if he didn't get the signal soon the Spartans would arrive and there would be hell
to pay.
If he had a bit more imagination, Datis would have known that sacking Eretria
after traitors had opened the gates was not a good way to encourage the Athenian
fifth column.
Finally, Persians and Greeks both saw someone signaling the Persian army by flashing
sunlight from a polished bronze shield. Datis ordered his army to embark.

Dunkirk for Datis

The cavalry, Persia's greatest strength, went first. Meanwhile Callimachus had
voted in favor of attack. As luck would have it, today was Miltiades' day to command.
Miltiades lined up his troops with the center only four ranks deep in order to make
his line as long as the Persian line. He kept the wings eight ranks deep in order to
repel flank attacks by any cavalry that hadn't embarked. The flutes tootled, and the
hoplites set out with their traditional slow march, keeping all ranks dressed, each man
crowding behind the shield of the man on his right.  



When the Greeks were about 200 yards away, the Persian archers began shooting
at the bronze glacier approaching them. Their arrows bounced off the Greeks' armor.
And the glacier turned into an avalanche. The Greek array switched to double-time
and swept down on the Persians.
Ethnic Persians and Sakas (Iranian nomads related to the Scythians) held the
center of the Persian line. They fought desperately against the weakened Greek
center, suffering appalling losses. The Greek spears were longer and their armor was
heavier. The Persians actually climbed over the Greek shields to hack at the shield-
bearers with axes and daggers. The Greek center bent back.
Meanwhile, the Greek wings, eight ranks deep instead of four, continued to
advance. As the Greek line bowed in the center, the wings turned inward. The Per-
sians were caught in a double envelopment, crowded into a dense mass where their
bows were useless.
The Persians turned and fled back to their ships. The Greeks pursued. They only
captured seven of the ships, which shows that a great mass of the Persian army got
away. It was now headed for Athens, and sea travel was faster than marching over the
mountains.

The great race

Miltiades, Callimachus, and the rest of the Greeks knew about the signal. It
seemed that in spite of the fate of Eretria, traitors were ready to surrender Athens
to the Persians. They called on Pheidippides, who had run to Sparta to ask for help,
to inform Athens of the victory. Speed was absolutely essential, the generals empha-
sized. The professional runner had never run so fast. He staggered into Athens crying,
"Nike, Nike!" and dropped dead. The traitors knew now that the Athenian army had
beaten the Persians and was on the way home. Any notion of welcoming Darius's
troops was forgotten.

The Athenian army made a forced march over the mountains in one day. The
Persians found the city closed and their enemies ready for another fight. They went
home.

Darius's son, Xerxes, decided to have another go at the Greeks. This time, he
sent an enormous army into Greece. The Persians swarmed down the peninsula,
over-whelming opposition and burning Athens. Then the disaster Darius had foreseen
occurred. A Greek fleet, following the directions of Themistocles of Athens, lured
the Persian navy into constricted waters near the island of Salamis and wiped it out.
Xerxes had to withdraw the bulk of his army. He left Mardonius with a small force he
believed could subsist on the countryside. The next year the combined phalanxes of
many Greek cities annihilated the Persian army. Democracy did not die.
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