15 Significant Facts about the Battle of Marathon

The Battle of Marathon was a historic battle that saw the great and mighty army of Persia face off against the Greek city-state of Athens. It was an attempt by a vengeful Persian king Darius the Great to expand his empire across the Aegean Sea. In the end, the courageous Athenian army, which was led by General Miltiades, handed King Darius a resounding defeat. Here are some interesting facts about the Battle of Marathon – a battle that was part of the first Persian invasions of Greece:

The Date and Place of the Battle

Facts about the Battle of Marathon | The Plain of Marathon was also the place where the Athenians buried the soldiers that died during the Battle Marathon.

Many historians believe that the exact date of the Battle of Marathon was September 12, 490 B.C.E. The battle is also believed to have taken place in the afternoon.

With regard to the location, the Battle of Marathon occurred on the plains of Marathon – 25 miles northeast of Athens. As can be seen even today, there are quite a number of hills that surround the plains of Marathon. It is most likely that those hills came in very beneficial for the Persians during the battle. The plains at the bay of Marathon spans about 8 mile, making it quite ideal for an army that was as large as the one the Persians had.

An Ionian Revolt fueled the Battle

The Ionians (present-day Turkey) were of Greek descent that had fallen into the control of the Persian Empire. Starting around 499 BCE, the Ionians, as well other Greek-based regions in Asia Minor, began a revolt against Persian rule. The Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria saw the Ionian revolt as an opportunity to remove their pesky neighbors, the Persians, away from the region; hence, the Greeks offered the Ionians some support. However, the revolt was quickly crushed by King Darius in c. 494 at the Battle of Lade. Due to their support of the Ionian Revolt, Darius and the Greeks became mortal foes.

Legend has it that, Darius the Great tasked an aide of his to always remind him on a daily bases of what the Greeks did in supporting the Ionian Revolt. The aide is believed to have said something like: “Master, don’t forget the Athenians”. By so doing, Darius’ thirst for revenge continued to soar, swearing to bring Athens and Eretria to ashes.

True to his word, Darius razed down cities like Eretria and Cyclades on his way to the Battle of Marathon.

Record-Breaking Persian Army and Strength

Facts about the Battle of Marathon | Image: Elite Persian warriors known as the “Immortals”.

To say that the Persian army was large would be an understatement. It is generally believed that the Persian Empire and its army was by a mile the largest army to exist at that time. The Persians could boast of military generals such as Dates and Artaphernes.

In addition to marching about 25 to 50 thousand soldiers to Greece, the Persian army was accompanied by a staggering 600 oar-powered ships, making the strength of the Persian army a force none like ever witnessed before that time.

The dilemma in the Athenian camp

At some point in time, a few Greek leaders and military minds contemplated whether or not they should give into to Darius’ rule. However, generals like Miltiades strongly called on his fellow Greek leaders to join in the resistance against the Persians. In the mind of Miltiades, giving into the Persians was the equivalent of condemning the whole of Greece into perpetual bondage.

Battle of Marathon facts

Prior to the battle, the Greek counsel of generals were split in their vote on whether to engage the Persians or not. It was 5 apiece. Many of the generals that opposed resisting the Persians believed that Greece stood no chance against Darius’ vast army.

The Role Callimachus played

With the Greeks deadlocked as to whether to kneel or stand up to Darius, Miltiades solicited the wise counsel of Callimachus – a polemarch and a very well-respected member of the Athenian military and society in general. The polemarch Callimachus cast his vote in favor of the generals that wanted to resist the Persians. And so Miltiades set forth to ready an Athenian resistance.

Facts about the Battle of Marathon

The Persians were aided by an infamous Greek Tyrant

Sour and vengeful after he was deposed from power in Greece, the Athenian tyrant Hippias aligned himself with the Persian. Hippias hoped to reclaim his power in Athens using the help of Darius. Along with other Persian generals, Hippias helped mastermind the attack on Athens and Eretria.

Why Hippias supported the Persians

It is believed that the Athenian tyrant and outcast General Hippias aligned himself and a number of his men to the Persians. The reason why Hippias did this was because he was angry with the Greeks for ousting him from power in Athens. Hippias and his family had maintained an iron grip on the Athenians for close to half a century. With on the onset of Athenian democracy in 510 B.C.E., the Athenians (with the help of the Spartan King Cleomenes I) banished Hippias and his cronies from Athens. Hippias then went to the city of Sardis – a Persian controlled territory – and asked for their help to take back Athens. Enraged by Sardis’ request to take back Hippias, the Athenians and the Eretrians decided to foment trouble by supporting the Ionians during their uprising.

The Spartans blatantly refused joining the cause of the Athenians

Some say that the Spartans didn’t want to risk losing any men in the defense of Athens. However, the most credible reason has to do with the fact that the Spartans were in the middle of 10-day festival of peace called Carneia. Hence, they could not go to the aid of their kinsmen.. The day after the battle, it is believed that Spartan soldiers arrived to the battle scene and witnessed for themselves how bravely the Athenians fought in defending their city.

Only a handful of Greek city states came to the aid of the Athenians

With the exclusion of a few soldiers from Platae and Attica, no other Greek-city state or Greek ally supported Athens during the Battle of Marathon. According to the famous Greek historian Herodotus, the Plataeans contributed about 1,000 soldiers to the war effort of the Athenians. Regardless, Athenians force of 10,000 men was still vastly outnumbered by Persia’s 50,000 men.

Pheidippides’ legendary run

Pheidippides | Facts about the Battle of Marathon

The generals of Athens sent Pheidippides – the fastest messenger in their camp –  to the Spartans in order to solicit their help. However, the Spartans refused. What is most interesting about this story is that: Pheidippides is believed to have covered a distance of about 150 miles (240 km), to and fro Sparta.

The mysterious disappearance of the Persian Cavalry

Centuries after the war, historians have been left scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened to the about 20,000 Persian cavalry at the Battle of Marathon. It is common fact that the Persians always went into battle with their fierce cavalry; however, for some reason unbeknownst to historians, there exists no mention of the Persian cavalry on the battle grounds.

Did the Persian cavalry leave the Battle of Marathon in hopes of attacking the undefended city of Athens? Or were they tasked to gather supplies while Athenians charged at the Persians? One thing is clear: The Persian cavalry was absent during the battle. Besides, had the cavalry being present, the outcome of the battle would perhaps have been different. In any case, the absence of the Persian cavalry was met with excitement by the Athenians. This spurred them to charge first at the Persians.

Athenians helped themselves to victory using Phalanx battle formation

The battle formation that the Athenian general Miltiades deployed was very much revolutionary. The general asked his best warriors to stay on the wings of an elongated line of Athenian soldiers. In the middle, the general placed average-skilled fighters. The Athenians were counting on the wings of their battle formation to inflict as much damage to the Persian army.

They purposely placed hoplites – a light-geared soldier – on the wings using the phalanx battle formation. The Phalanx refers to a battle formation consisting of a group of soldiers that march in unison using their shields to block arrows shot at them from enemy lines. Once the enemy arrows stopped raining down on them, these light-geared soldiers would now rise and stab the enemy using their spears. It’s been stated that the Athenians deployed the phalanx formation in a very brilliant manner.

Athenian victory spurred on several benefits

To this day, the battle remains one of the earliest records of battles in world history. And the importance of the Battle of Marathon lies in the fact that it boosted the confidence and resolve of the Greeks. As a result of this, the Greeks helped themselves into the “golden age”, where democracy, philosophy and scientific innovations flourished.

The Battle of Marathon etched its name into the select-group of historic events because it was one of the first instances of the East (i.e. Persia) clashing with the West (i.e. Greece).

Where the Battle of Marathon took place – the bay of Marathon – is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Athens. Today, 26 miles is the exact distance a foot race runner has to run in order to complete a marathon. The marathon has been a popular sport event in the modern Olympic Games since the 19th century.

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Although the Athenians were numerically inferior to the Persians, the fact that the Athenian generals (such as General Miltiades) were able to use creative battle tactics gave them an edge over the Persians. On the contrary, the Persians paid the price for naively underestimating the Athenians. Some say that the Athenians had far superior armory and battle gear than the Persians.

Athenians believed that the gods had a hand in their win

Prior to the battle, the Greeks offered immense sacrifices and prayers to a number of Greek goddesses such as Athenian goddess Athena (the goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare), the goddess Nike, and the goddess Artemis Agrotera (Artemis the Huntress).

According to Herodotus, marathon runner Pheidppides encountered the god Pan as he ran to get help from the Spartans. Pan then promised Pheidippides that he would come to the aid of the Greeks during the battle. Herodotus went on to state that Pan instilled a fear and panic amongst the rank and file of the Persians during the battle. It is from this explanation that the modern word “panic” comes from, i.e. a reference to what the god Pan did during the Battle of Marathon. From then onward, the Greeks took to worshiping and honoring the god Pan.

As a result of the vital help that Pan and all the other deities provided, Greeks offered a lot of sacrifices to those deities. For example, the Greeks went on to keep their promise to the god Pan by offering the same number of goat sacrifices as that of the number of Persians (about 6,400 of them) that died during the battle.

Herodotus’ account of the battle

Much of what we know about the Battle of Marathon was written by the renowned Greek historian Herodotus. It is believed that Herodotus, the Father of History, penned down the events that occurred before, during and after the battle.

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