Battle of Marathon: Major Cause & Historical Importance

Battle of Marathon causes and significance | Picture – Georges Rochegrosse, 1859

In so many ways, the Battle of Marathon, which was between the ancient Greeks and the Persian Empire, was one of the greatest battles ever recorded in human history. The reason for this assertion is simply because of the impact the Battle of Marathon had on the whole of western civilization and the world in general. In the article below, we delve right into the major cause and historical importance of the Battle of Marathon.


The Battle of Marathon is believed to have taken place in September 490 B.C. around the bay of Marathon in the Mediterranean region. Largely considered as the first battle in the Greco-Persian Wars, the battle saw the Persian Empire invade Athens with a very large army.

As the Persian army, which was led by Darius the Great, approached Athens and other Greek city-states, Athenian general Miltiades scrambled to gather an Athenian force that could withstand the Persians at the bay. With his army vastly outnumbered 1 to 4 by the Persians, the Greek general put up a strong fight by charging at the Persians first. This brave and decisive move by the Greeks helped secure victory over the Persians – an event that went on to shape the course of history for over two millennia.

What caused the Battle of Marathon?

Over tens of centuries, historians have reasoned that the root cause of the Battle of Marathon was a classic case of vengeance. The Persians wanted to punish the Greek city-states, especially Athens, that supported Ionian rebellion against the Persian Empire.

As at the 5th century B.C.E. the Persian Empire, under the leadership of Darius the Great, was emphatically the greatest empire on the face of the earth. Darius’ territory stretched from present day Iran to vast areas in Anatolia (present-day Turkey). One such territory was Ionia (found in modern-day Turkey).

Owing to the crude reign (perhaps) of Darius, the people of Ionia engineered a rebellion against the Persian Empire. The uprising was eventually extinguished by King Darius. However, Darius would remain sour because he believed that the Greek city-state of Athens provided ample support to the Ionians during the rebellion.

Darius decided to teach the Greeks a lesson by invading their lands. And so, the first battle in a series of Greco-Persian battles was born.

What transpired during the Battle of Marathon?

With news of the mighty Persian army marching towards Greece, Athenian general Miltiades sprung up to action and swiftly organized an Athenian defense force of about 10,000 men.

In addition to King Darius’ elite forces, astute and experienced Persian generals such as Datis and Araphernes led 25-50 thousand Persian soldiers across Anatolia into Greece.

En route to Greece, the Persian army obliterated the Greek city-state of Eretria. Historians believe that the Eretrians, just like the Athenians, lent some amount of support to the Ionians during their revolt against Persian rule.

As the Persians marched towards Athens, no Greek city-state or town dared put up a fight against the overwhelming Persian army. By September 490 BCE, the Persian army had successfully made its way into the bay of Marathon, 25 kilometers northwest of Athens.

Battle formation

Battle of Marathon | Greek Hoplites in a Phalanx Battle formation

For about five days or so, both armies camped on the plains of the Marathon without engaging the other. All hell broke loose when the Athenians suddenly charged at the Persians. Considering how thin Athenian army was, this tactic of their was anything but a suicidal.

However, General Miltiades had something up his sleeves. He ordered the Athenian army to form a line equivalent to the stretch of the Persian army. The Athenian battle formation (the hoplite phalanx) was considered absurd by the Persians. Miltiades divided his men into three sections. He strategically placed very swift men on the wings while those that weren’t fast were placed in the middle. Miltiades hoped to use those on the wings to outflank the incoming Persian soldiers.

With regard to Persian army, the generals tactically placed the strongest men down the middle, while the not so strong soldiers (typically enslaved men) were placed on the flanks. This move by the Persian generals cost them severely because those Persian soldiers on the flanks started to disband the moment the battle got intense. The disintegration of the Persian flanks allowed the Greek soldiers on the flanks to make further inroads into the heart of the Persian army.

In the end, the center of the Greek battle line gave in; however, this allowed those on the wings to surround the Persian army and inflict severe damage on the Persians. One by one, the Persians began to panic. The ensuing panic resulted in the Persians losing their stance, which in turn resulted in several of them perishing.

Why were the Athenians the first to charge in the Battle?

Battle of Marathon Causes and Importance

Realizing that he was immensely outnumbered, Greek topmost general, Miltiades decided to take a bold action by charging first. Many historians believe that he did this because the Persian army had made a move that Miltiades mistook for a charge. Others say that the Persian cavalry were poised to sail around Cape Sounion and bypass the Greek army, making way to the undefended city of Athens. Therefore Miltiades was left with no other action than charging first.

Number of deaths

By the close of the battle, ancient historians estimate that about 6,000 Persians were killed while the Greeks lost a minuscule 192 soldiers. The dead Athenian and Plataean soldiers were honored and laid to rest on the battlefield.

Aftermath of the Battle

Realizing that they were outwitted and outmaneuvered by the Greeks, the Persian soldiers ran helter-skelter to their ships. Persian generals then ordered their men to make haste and head for Athens, which was by then without any form of defense. Weary and battle-fatigued, Greek soldiers raced against the Persians, arriving just in time to defend their city. With the same vigor and tenacity, Greek Athenians defended their homeland against the Persian invaders.

After the defeat at Marathon, King Darius desired to attack the Greeks again; however, this plan of his was kept on hold because he had to quell a revolt in Egypt, which erupted around 486 B.C.E.

Darius died shortly after the campaigns in Egypt. The task of revisiting and invading the Greeks fell to his son, Xerxes the Great (also known as Xerxes I).

Read More: Biography and Accomplishments of Xerxes the Great, King of Persia

Historical Importance of the Battle of Marathon

Prior to their defeat at Marathon, the Persians rarely tasted any defeat. Darius had successfully built his Persian army into a fierce and formidable fighting force. Greece’s win showed that even the mightiest of armies can fall, and that resistance if pursued properly could triumph over tyranny.

Another significant lesson that the Athenians drew from Marathon was that they knew that the Spartans were not the most reliable of allies. The Greeks started to hold a strong belief that they could securely defend themselves from any army that sought to do them harm.

Most importantly, the Battle of Marathon served as a vital pillar upon which the entire Classical Greek civilization was built. It became symbolic for what could be achieved with high sense of self-belief, confidence and unity within a nation. Obviously, Greek civilization is what ended up forming a crucible in which the bulk part of our Western civilization was brewed, influencing all of the Mediterranean and European history for two millennia. Had the Greeks not won, we shudder to think whether the “golden age” of Athens would ever have rose to such heights that it attained.

From the Persian perspective, the Greek city-states represented a threat to the stability of the Persian Empire. The Persian generals believed that were Greek’s interference in the affairs of Persia go unchecked, the Persian Empire would go on to fall. Darius’ goal was to make an example of the Greeks and show to the world what could happen to anyone that dared defy the Persian Empire.

What factors contributed to Greece’s victory at the Battle of Marathon?

In addition to thinning out their army formation to make it long in length as the Persians, the victory secured by the Greeks was down to a host of factors. Some historians have claimed that the Greeks had better battle tactics and fighting prowess than the Persians.

Other military scholars have stated that the Greeks had better equipment and battle gear. Thus, instead of wearing bronze armors, the Greeks went in for lighter materials such as leather and linen. Above all, courage has been described as the single most important contributing factor in ancient Greece’s win at the battle of Marathon.

On that the day, the Greeks were simply more determined to vanquish the forces of tyranny and suppression. On the other hand, the Persians may have grossly underestimated the resolve and strength of the Greeks.

Pheidippides – the Greek Marathon Runner

Pheidippides (or Philippides) collapses shortly after announcing the Athenians’ victory over Persia at the Battle of Marathon | Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869

An Athenian messenger was dispatched to Athens to inform the unprotected Athenians of the victory against the Persians. Prior to the battle, the women, children and old people in Athens were instructed to kill themselves if Miltiades and his men lost the battle. They believed death by suicide was a much better fate than the immense torture that the Persians would have inflicted on the city were it to go down. Therefore, the messenger’s task was to inform the Athenians of the victory.

It is believed that the messenger ran, nonstop, from the bay of Marathon all the way to Athens. Ancient historians estimate that Pheidippides clocked a distance of about 25 miles (40 kilometers). Shortly after announcing the glorious win of the Athenians, Pheidippides collapsed due to exhaustion. Before he died, the myth states that Pheidippides bellowed out “nenikēkamen!”, which translates into “we have won”.

Many historians have disputed the authenticity of this event. At best it was a massive embellishment made by the Greeks to accentuate the epic nature of the Battle of Marathon. Regardless, several centuries later, the legendary distance ran by Pheidippides (Phidippides) is what has metamorphosed into the modern marathon foot race.

The famous ancient historian Herodotus states that Pheidippides was actually tasked to deliver a message to the Spartans, soliciting their help in defending against the Persians. Herodotus goes on to say that Pheidippides spent about a day or two running from Athens to Sparta, covering a distance of about 150 miles (240 km).

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