Battle of Marathon

gigatos | October 28, 2021


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

Heard of the landing, the Athenian forces together with a handful of hoplites of Platea hurried toward the plain with the intent to block the advance of the more numerous Persian army. Once decided to give battle, the Athenians succeeded to encircle the enemy that, taken from the panic, escaped disorderly to the ships, decreeing so the own defeat. Re-embarking, the Persians circumnavigated Cape Sunio planning to bring the attack directly to the unarmed Athens, but the Athenian army led by the strategist Miltiades, rushing towards the city at forced marches, could foil the Persian landing on the coast near Piraeus. Failed the surprise, the aggressors returned in Asia Minor with the prisoners captured to Eretria.

The battle of Marathon is also famous for the legend of the emerodrome Pheidippides who, according to Lucian of Samosata, would have run continuously from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory and, arrived there, would have died for the effort. Although it is a mixture of several ancient stories, the story of this enterprise has endured over the centuries to inspire the creation of the marathon race, which in 1896 was introduced in the official program of the first edition of the modern Olympic Games held in Athens.

The first attempt of 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 replicated in Egypt and usually ended with the armed intervention of the imperial army, were not uncommon: around 500 BC the Achaemenid Empire, implementing a strong expansionist policy, was still relatively young and therefore potential easy victim of contrasts between the subject populations. Before the revolt of the cities of Ionia, King Darius I of Persia had begun a program of colonization against the people of the Balkan peninsula, subduing Thrace and forcing the Kingdom of Macedonia to become his ally; a policy so aggressive could not be tolerated by the Greek poleis that supported the revolt of their colonies in Asia Minor, threatening the integrity of the Persian Empire. The support of the insurrection was therefore an ideal casus belli to politically annihilate the opponent and punish him for his intervention.

The Ionian revolt (499-493 BC) was triggered after the failed aggression of the island of Naxos by the forces of Lydia and the city of Miletus, commanded by the satrap Artaferne and the tyrant Aristagora. As a result of the defeat of the latter, having understood that the satrap would have raised from the office, decided to abdicate and proclaim democracy. This example was followed by the citizens of the other Greek colonies of Ionia that deposited their tyrants and proclaimed the democratic regime, taking as a model what happened in Athens with the expulsion of the tyrant Hippias and the establishment of democracy by Clisthenes. Assumed the command of this process of insurrection, which in his plans aimed not only to promote the emergence of democratic systems but also to free the poleis from Persian interference, Aristagoras asked the support of the cities of the motherland hoping to send him a substantial military aid, the appeal, however, was collected only by Athens and Eretria that sent the one twenty and the other five ships.

Cleomenes then marched on Athens with his army, but his intervention in the end did not produce any result, if not to force the Athenians to ask for help to Artaferne. Arrived in Sardis, the Greek ambassadors agreed to grant the satrap “land and water” (in ancient Greek: γῆ καί ὕδωρ) as a sign of submission, in accordance with the customs of the time, but when they returned were severely punished for this gesture. Meanwhile Cleomene organized a new coup, trying to bring back to the government of the city the tyrant Hippias, but this initiative was also a failure. Ippia, returned to the court of Artaferne, reproposed to the Persians to subdue Athens: there was a vain attempt to reach a compromise, but the only way to avoid the armed intervention would have been the restoration of the power of Ippia, unacceptable solution to the citizens of the polis. Refusing the proposal of pacification, Athens assumed the risk of running the title of main opponent of the Achaemenid Empire. But we must take into account other elements: the colonies based their democratic model on that proposed by the Athenian polis and the same colonists were of Greek origin.

Athens and Eretria sent therefore a total contingent of twenty-five triremes to support the revolt. Arrived there, the Greek army was able to march to Sardis, burning the low city, but, forced to fall back to the coast following the intervention of the Persian army, had to suffer a large number of deaths during the hasty retreat. The action was not only useless, but caused the final break in diplomatic relations between the two adversaries and the birth of the desire for revenge by Darius: Herodotus tells in an anecdote that the king, harnessed the arc, has launched an arrow against the sky asking Zeus to be able to take revenge and that he charged a servant to remind him, every day before dinner, his purpose of revenge.

Already in 492 BC Darius sent a military contingent in Greece under the command of his son-in-law Mardonius, one of the most prestigious leaders: reconquered Thrace and forced the submission of the Kingdom of Macedonia of Alexander I, the invasion failed because of a storm near Mount Athos that destroyed the Persian fleet. In 490 BC. Darius prepared a second expedition, this time led by the generals Data and Artaferne (Mardonius, injured during the previous attempted invasion, had in fact fallen into disgrace. The campaign had three main purposes: to subdue the Cyclades islands, to punish the poleis of Naxos, Athens and Eretria for the hostility shown against the empire and to annex all Greece. After having successfully attacked Naxos, the military contingent arrived in Evia during the summer, and the city of Eretria was taken and burned. Then the fleet moved south, in the direction of the city of Athens, the final goal of the expedition.


All historians agree that the main source regarding the Persian wars is the work of Herodotus The Histories, whose reliability has always been debated. The author, in fact, claims to be based on oral sources and also claims to have as its ultimate goal to remind posterity of the history of the Persian wars, taking as a model the Homeric epic. He, therefore, did not write a historiographical treatise according to today”s dictates because he did not cite his sources, nor did he report technical data that today would certainly not be overlooked.

While some historians believe that Herodotus, in many cases, intended to corroborate his ideas at the expense of their reliability, without producing evidence in support of such a hypothesis, most scholars consider him an honest and non-partisan historian, even if he reported many clearly exaggerated data, to the point of bordering on myth. It is therefore necessary to evaluate carefully the information that he reports when he claims to have been witness to the facts (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 him incorrect data.

Herodotus had very little knowledge of warfare and military tactics, so he described the Persian wars in a way that refers to the epic tales; for this reason he probably also accepted absurd numbers to quantify the number of troops deployed by the Persians in the Second Persian War, and often preferred to report actions carried out by individuals rather than by entire armies. The lack of technical details (also due to the fact that the witnesses questioned by Herodotus, often soldiers of one side or the other, did not remember with precision the events after decades) often makes it difficult to understand the 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 no confidence can be placed in other accounts when they differ from Herodotus.”

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

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

It also describes:

Other ancient writers

The complementary sources to Herodotus are:

Herodotus ascribes to 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 do not agree. All of the 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 BC, a date often accepted as correct. The hypothesis is developed by taking for certain that the Spartan army left only at the end of the Carnean festivities. Given the possibility that the Lacedaemonian calendar was one 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. Basing himself on the date reported by Herodotus for the arrival of Pheidippides in Sparta (the 9th of metagitnion), on the fact that the Spartans left with the full moon (which occurred according to astronomical calculations on the 15th), on the news reported again by Herodotus that they arrived in Athens after three days of travel (i.e. on the 18th) and considering 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 mismatches (unlikely given that metagitnion was only the second month of the year), leads in this case to the date of September 11.

Plutarch records that the Athenians celebrated the victory at Marathon on the 6th boedromion, but converting the date to the Julian calendar is very complex.Peter Krentz in fact asserts that there is a possibility that the Athenian calendar had been manipulated so that the battle would not interfere with the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries, and given that a few days of study elapsed between the contingents before the battle, he believes that a firm date cannot be established.

The quantification of the forces employed by the two sides during the battle is rather difficult. Herodotus, an irreplaceable source for the reconstruction of the battle, does not report the size of the two armies: he only mentions that the Persian fleet was composed of 600 boats. Subsequent authors often exaggerated the number of Persians, thus emphasizing the value of the Greeks.

Greek Forces

Most of the ancient sources agree that in the plain of Marathon there were about 10 000 Greek hoplites: Herodotus does not provide an exact figure while Cornelius Nepotes, report the presence of about 9 000 Athenian hoplites and 1 000 soldiers from the polis of Plataea. Pausanias specifies that the Greeks in total were less than 10 000 and that the Athenian contingent was composed of no more than 9 000 men, including slaves and the elderly; Marcus Junianus Justinus speaks of 10 000 Athenians and 1 000 Plataeans. Given that the number of mobilized troops does not differ from what Herodotus himself reports for the contingents engaged in the battle of Plataea, it can be assumed that the historians have not deviated from the reality of the facts.

As for the presence of Greek cavalry, not recorded by ancient historians, it is believed that the Athenians, although they had a body of knights, they decided not to use it thinking that it was too weak compared to the Persian one.

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

Pausanias points out that before the battle Miltiades had proposed to the Athenian assembly to free a certain number of slaves to make them fight (extraordinary measure adopted only two other times in the history of Athens, at the Battle of Arginuse in 406 BC and the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC), so much so that the memorial reported the names of many slaves freed for their military services. Many scholars consider this implausible and assume that slaves did not fight in Marathon. According to Nicholas Sekunda, the Athenian army counted 9,000 men, so Miltiades, in order to replenish the ranks, convinced the people to enlist the over-50s and a number of slaves freed for the occasion.

Persian forces

As for the Persian deployment, the numerical evaluations of ancient historians have been rejected, which report several tens of thousands of troops (the only one not to give figures on ground troops is Herodotus. The reconstruction of the size of the Persian expeditionary force is still a matter of debate among scholars.

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

The number of infantry and horsemen stationed by the Persians is very uncertain and the hypotheses are based primarily on these assumptions: the number of ships (600, 300 or less) and the number of fallen (6 400) provided by Herodotus in relation to the Greek contingent (about 10 000 men). Then the estimates usually advanced identify a range of Persian forces between 20 000 and 30 000 or more roughly between 15 000 or 40 000 men of infantry, and between 200 and 3 000 or about 1 000 for the cavalry.

Persian landing at Marathon

After having taken 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 participated in the expedition, according to Herodotus the generals Data and Artafernes chose the plain of Marathon “because it was the part of Attica better for the cavalry and at the same time the closest to Eretria. This sentence of Herodotus has been much disputed, since some historians believe it to be wrong, while others accept it but consider 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 do not see why the proximity to the city could somehow 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 ask for 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 to the gherusia), who answered that they would have sent their contingent not before the night of full moon, since in those days any war activity was forbidden.

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 state this with certainty.

According to Lionel Scott it is possible that the assembly or the 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 seems at odds with what Herodotus says, who in reporting the speech of the emerodrome, writes that Eretria was “now enslaved”.

What may seem most unlikely 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 race 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.

When it was known of the landing, in Athens there was a heated debate on what was the best tactic to adopt to face the threat. While some were inclined to wait for the arrival of the Persians inside the walls of the city (which at the time were probably still too small to ensure an effective defense), following the tactics chosen by Eretria, which, however, had not saved it from destruction, others, including the strategist Miltiades, fought to face the Persians in Marathon, preventing them from marching on Athens. In the end the decree proposed by Miltiades was approved, then the soldiers, made the necessary provisions, left. The decree, although not cited by Herodotus, is usually accepted as true by historians, also because cited by Aristotle

The Athenian soldiers, guided from the polemarch Callimachus of Aphidna and from ten strategists, marched therefore in direction of the plain, with the intent to block the two exits, preventing so the Persians to penetrate in the attic hinterland. Here arrived they camped at the sanctuary of Heracles, located at the south-western end of the plain, where they were reached by the contingent plateese. Regarding the intervention of this polis in the conflict, Herodotus affirms that it decided to intervene since they protected.

There has been a great debate on which road the Athenians have followed to go to Marathon. One of the hypotheses taken into consideration was the coastal road, which passing from the south reached the place of the landing 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 kilometers were hardly practicable because undulating and probably hindered by the forests that grew there at the time. Although some historians advocate the shortest way, it has been objected that such a route would have been very difficult for a regular army, causing several delays (circumstance that the Athenians wanted to avoid to prevent a possible Persian attack) and especially would have left the possibility for the Persians to bypass the Athenians taking the coastal road, so now you tend to prefer the hypothesis of the coastal road. It has also been formulated the hypothesis that the expeditionary corps of Athens has traveled this route, while the Athenians scattered through the rest of Attica would have reached Marathon later, passing through the mountain path.

Stalling days

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

One of these concerns the command of the expedition: in Marathon were present all ten strategists (including Miltiades), 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 could instead be an expedient to justify some inconsistencies arose in the narrative of the facts, not being this strategy confirmed by other sources. In the story of Herodotus shows that Miltiades was ready to fight even without the Spartan support, but chose his day of command to attack, despite the strategists (supporting his determination) had already given him each their own. The postponement of the start of hostilities may have been prompted by a tactic deemed advantageous to the Athenians, this choice shows, however, in open contradiction to the firm will to give battle attributed to Miltiades and then some speculate that the transfer of power from strategist to strategist may be a machination to justify the inability of Miltiades to act first, as prevented by colleagues, although historians are not all in agreement.

The Persians, however, also had reasons to delay: they probably hoped to take Athens thanks to traitors, as they had already done with Eretria, and perhaps they also hoped that the Greeks would attack in order to exploit the force of impact of the cavalry on a terrain that lent itself well to such a maneuver; it is also possible that they considered the comparison between the respective infantry a gamble, since the armor of the Athenian hoplites were far superior to the light protection provided by the Persian infantry. This tactical reality was confirmed in the subsequent clashes between Persians and Greeks at Thermopylae and Plataea during the Second Persian War.

The Athenian decision to attack

The stalemate was interrupted when the Athenians decided to attack. According to Herodotus, the decisive vote for this choice was the polemarch, who, having heard the arguments that Miltiades produced at the assembly of strategists, had to resolve the stalemate created, with five votes against the attack and five in favor. This speech was perhaps invented by Herodotus, since in several passages it seems made on purpose for the reader and is largely implausible, and you can also 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 places 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 lottery was not introduced until 487-486 BC. This has raised a lot of controversy: while some historians accuse Herodotus of anachronism (however frequent in his Histories), others think that the polemarch was already drawn before 487 (as well as the eponymous archon and archon basileus) or that Aristotle is wrong.

It is not known still what really pushed the Athenians to give battle and various have been the hypotheses advanced.

The possible division of the Persian army

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

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

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

According to Peter Krentz, Miltiades decided to start the battle because at that moment, as he had been able to ascertain from the movements of the Persians in the previous days, at that hour the horsemen were descending towards the plain from their camp in the valley of Tricorinth and therefore could not intervene in a possible fight.

The reconstruction of the battlefield is the subject of a heated debate among historians because of the difficult identification of many places, for the scarcity of data (Herodotus does not describe the environment in which the battle took place) and for the amount of changes undergone by the topography in the last 2500 years.

Geomorphology and vegetation

The alluvial plain of Marathon is 9.6 kilometers long and 1.6 wide and was, according to the testimony 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, is surrounded by hills of schist and marble with a maximum height of 560 meters that extend into the sea, northeast of the plain, to form the peninsula of Cinosura. The crops did not hinder the movement of the armies except for the vine south of the Caradro, presence assumed by G. B. Grundy, which could have hindered the action of the Persian cavalry.

The Caradro torrent, which springs from the Parnes and flows in the middle of the coast, in ancient times was characterized by very steep and deep banks and was one of the watercourses that favoured the enlargement of the plain by carrying debris downstream. Considering how the ancient maps are contradictory, some historians say that the mouth has not moved since the fifth century BC, while others think that 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 2-3 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 cordon of sand, is to be dated before or after the battle. Pausanias affirmed that it was a lake in communication with the sea through an emissary and that it contained fresh water, which however became salty near the mouth. Some scholars, driven 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 main source (still present) that feed the streams of the plain is that of Megalo Mati, probably to be identified with the source Macaria mentioned by Pausanias that once, according to what is said by Strabo brought water to Athens. Since the possibilities of water supply were equal for the areas where the two armies camped, the Greeks, much less numerous than their aggressors, had enough water.

Submerged before 18000 B.C. and again between 8000 and 6000 B.C., the plain of Marathon was then enlarged by streams that passed through it and deposited sediments there, but it is not known exactly how extensive it was in 490 B.C., since studies with soil cores have never been carried out. Some scholars speculate that the coastline has not moved too far from 490 BC.

Places existing before the battle

Hotly debated is the location of the sanctuary of Heracles at which the Greeks camped, located according to Lucian near the tomb of Eurystheus. Of the many theories advanced in modern times, those that see the location at the mouth of the valley of Vrana or near Valaria have not been refuted by the presence of foundations in the first case and for that of inscriptions on Heracles in the second, also supported by the location. Cornelius Nepot devotes particular attention to the description of the Athenian camp, describing it as well protected.

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

Battle related facilities

The troughs of Artaferne”s horses are located east of the lake, either in a small artificial cave or in niches carved into the rock at half the height of a hill located above Cato Suli, called by the locals “troughs of Artaferne”: the latter theory agrees with what is claimed by Krentz who places (as Leake) the cavalry camp in the plain of Tricorinth.

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

In one of the burial mounds found in 1970 by Spyridōn Marinatos were found bodies, identified as those of the Plataeans because all the dead were men and there are similarities between the pottery of this tomb and that found in the Athenian mound: from this discovery Marinatos could draw the alleged proof that Pausanias was wrong in stating that the Plataeans were buried with the freed slaves. The distance from the Athenian tomb, the distance from the Greek lines and the cremation of the bodies, however, suggest that it was a private tomb, despite its location on the road that connects Plataea and the plain.

Untraced by Pausanias, the mass grave where the 6 400 murdered 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.

Eugene Vanderpool, digging near the chapel of Panagia and finding various fragments attributable to an ionic column erected between 450 BC and 475 BC, believed to have found the white marble trophy mentioned by Pausanias. According to modern criticism, this work was raised on the same day of the battle by hanging Persian weapons and was brought to its present form by Cimone around 460 BC: it is located at the point where the flight of the enemies began. On the occasion of the 2004 Olympics, a similar trophy was erected next to the remains of the original.

Callimachus, as a polemarch, commanded the right wing of the Greek array, while the Platonic allies were deployed at the bottom 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 array, namely the tribe Leontid led by Themistocles and the tribe Antiochides led by Aristides, lined up on four ranks contrary to others, which were instead in a row of eight.

Although it may appear that this deployment was intended to equalize in length the Persian one and thus avoid a possible flanking, some modern scholars suggest that this decision was taken to allow the encirclement of the Persian central column as soon as it had broken through the central row: however, we can not be sure of such a tactic, which is outside the military thinking of the time. and was formalized for the first time only in the battle of Leuttra (371 BC). It is not finally known if to order this maneuver has been Callimaco or Milziade.

Of the other army is known only that the Persians and Sacians were deployed in the center, while the wings gathered weaker troops. Regarding the ambiguous question of the cavalry, many lean towards 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 had no time to prepare or otherwise 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 them.

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 sacrifices to the gods that were successful, covered the entire distance that separated them from their enemies “running” (in ancient Greek: δρόμοι, although some believe that 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 never initiated such a maneuver. In particular, the attackers thought, according to Herodotus, that the Athenians were insane and destined for certain death because they were outnumbered, tired from the race, and lacked 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 provided by Tom Holland:

The vigorous clash provoked the shattering of the central sector of the Greek army, pressed by the center of the Persian array; however the wings of the Athenians, more numerous than usual, succeeded first to block the advance of the lateral Persian sectors and later to close on the central column, which found itself so surrounded: the men, in panic, withdrew in disorder towards the fleet pursued by the Greeks; some Persian soldiers ran instead in direction of the Great Swamp, where they drowned. The Athenians, forced the enemy to escape in the direction of the ships, managed to take possession of seven triremes: the others managed to sail.


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

Even the number of Persian ships captured by the Greeks, seven according to Herodotus, has aroused some perplexity, since such a victory in theory would have allowed the Greeks to capture more. It should be noted, however, that the beach of the landing had an easily defensible access and that, perhaps, the vessels had landed inside the Great Swamp, which offered numerous points for a quick embarkation. In the opinion of those who support the theory of the division of the Persian army, the few ships captured are indicative of the presence of a modest number of troops, whose embarkation was relatively fast. Nor can the possibility be ruled out (following Herodotus” account) that when the victorious Greeks arrived at the Persian ships, the wing troops had probably already embarked. Finally, it is uncertain whether Hippias took part in the fighting, although it seems difficult given 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 to the Persian ships, a fact according to him undeniable. In Athens there was the suspicion that this move had been planned with the support of the noble family of Alcmeonides, but Herodotus rejects this accusation, since according to him the Alcmeonides hated tyrants and therefore did not want a resettlement of Hippias; it was also said that the Alcmeonides had bribed Pythia to convince 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 veracity of the signal are divided on the location of its source, its meaning, and who is responsible for it.

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

Ultimately it seems that most scholars are unanimous on the probable non-existence of the signal, both for obvious technical difficulties and for problems of improbability due to the strong political connotation of the episode itself, which seems precisely a rumor spread by the opponents of the Alcmeonids. Despite this, the question is certainly open and there is no lack of contrary theories, even recent ones.

A legend traditionally attributed to Herodotus, but popularized by Plutarch, who in turn cites Heraclides Pontius in the work On the glory of the Athenians, argues that Pheidippides (called by Plutarch Eucle or Tersippus) after the battle would run up to Athens where, pronounced the famous phrase “We won” (in ancient greek: Νενικήκαμεν, Nenikèkamen), would die for the effort. Also Luciano of Samosata reports the same legend, calling the runner Filippide, name preferred to Fidippide in the Middle Ages, but today not very diffused.

Historians believe that this legend is only a fusion of the real race to Sparta made by the emerodrome before the battle to ask the support of the Lacedaemonians to 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 towards Athens

Herodotus reports that as soon as the battle was over the Persian fleet, after having taken on board the prisoners of Eretria that it had left near the island of Styra, circumnavigated Cape Sunio directed towards the Phalerus; the Athenians, having realized the danger impending on their city, returned to forced marches with the utmost haste and camped near the sanctuary of Heracles at Cinosarge, anticipating the arrival of the Persians: they, once arrived, remained for a while anchored in front of the coast but finally gave up and made sail for Asia. Plutarch underlines that the Athenians left at Marathon the contingent of the Antiochid tribe commanded by the strategist Aristides to guard the prisoners and the booty, while the rest of the army rushed to Athens; this last detail seems implied by Herodotus, who however does not affirm it expressly.

The statement of Plutarch seems to validate a fact implied by Herodotus but is not unanimously accepted by scholars, since some support 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.

In conclusion, although based on studies by 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.

According to Peter Krentz Aristides, remained on the battlefield with his troops, ordered to begin preparations 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, above it was built a brick base for cremation, about 1 meter wide and 5 long, which supported the pyre. In that place was then built the mound that became known as “Soros”, on the top of which were affixed tombstones bearing the names of the 192 fallen divided by tribe of belonging. 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.

Regarding the tactical superiority, whose merits are to be attributed to Callimachus and Miltiades (it is not known exactly to which of the two goes the greater honor), we can see how the flexibility of the deployment to the situation was a fundamental aspect. Generally the strategy used by the Hellenic armies provided that the annihilation of the enemy front was through the use of the phalanx oplitica in hand-to-hand combat, because the tactics developed in Greece did not take into account the use in battle of toxotai (archers) and hippikon (horsemen). The phalanx, therefore, was excellent in frontal clashes, but the enemy cavalry could strike on the flanks or break the deployment by exploiting the gaps left by those who were killed or overwhelmed. The lengthening, in this case, of the deployment to equal the Persian one obtained by weakening the center; the running attack perhaps wanted to anticipate the intervention of the cavalry (probably started 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.

Regarding the ineffectiveness of Persian tactics, it has been pointed out that the Persian fighting style was more suited to the endless plains of Asia than to the modest, narrow and irregular Greek plains, where the maneuvering power of the cavalry was partly cancelled. In fact, the strategy adopted by the Persian army was to break the enemy front through a massive use of archers and cavalry, which in the boundless plains of Asia caused heavy losses and disoriented the opponents, who were then annihilated by the intervention of the infantry. The cavalry, a fundamental element of Persian tactics, was lightly armed (with bow and javelin) and therefore was very fast and maneuverable.It seems that unlike the Greeks, the Persians have not in any way tried to adapt to the situation their deployment. On the absence or on the scarce importance in the clash of the Persian cavalry, so important in the tactics of this army, various hypotheses have been proposed: the re-embarkation before the battle, the horses were still watering, participated in the battle but its action resulted little incisive against the Greek army, disciplined and heavily armed.

In the hand-to-hand combat the battle was clearly to the advantage of the Greeks, better organized and equipped with heavy armament. The Persians used long spears from 1,8 to 2 meters and long swords from 0,38 to 0,41 meters, suitable weapons against a demoralized army, disorganized and already partly disrupted by archers and cavalry; the Greek spears instead went from 2,1 to 2,7 meters and the swords from 0,61 to 0,74 meters. The Persians had a wicker shield, usually used to defend themselves from arrows, and only a minority of men wore a light flake armor; most of the troops on the wings were totally without it. The Greeks, on the other hand, wielded a wooden shield covered in bronze, used not only for defense but also as an additional weapon, and wore helmets of excellent workmanship to prevent head injuries. Many historians have also pointed out that the Athenians fought for freedom, a cause that gave them a 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 skilled in defeating the Greek center, but in the end had to succumb to Hellenic superiority and suffered a serious defeat.

In ancient times

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

On the contrary, in Greece this triumph had an enormous symbolic value for the poleis: it was in fact the first defeat inflicted by the individual citizen armies to the Persian army, whose invincibility had been disproved. Moreover, the victory showed how it was possible to defend the autonomy of the city from Achaemenid control.

The battle was significant for the formation of the young Athenian democracy, marking the beginning of the golden age: it showed that the cohesion of the city made it possible to cope with difficult or desperate situations. Before the battle Athens was only a polis among many, but after 490 BC obtained a prestige such as to be able to then claim its position as leader of Greece (and then of the Delio-Attic League) in the fight against the so-called “barbarians”.

In the Athenian tradition the victories of Marathon and Salamis were often remembered together: sometimes Salamis had the precedence because the invasion faced had been more impressive, had removed the Persians permanently and represented the beginning of the Athenian naval power of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, but in art, monuments, plays and orations (especially those “funeral” in honor of the 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 testified by the numerous monuments dedicated to it: the fresco of the Stoà Pecile (half of the fifth century BC), the enlargement of Soros also embellished by the epigram of Simonides, the construction of a monument to Miltiades in Marathon and a second at the oracle of Delphi (half of the fifth century BC, probably wanted by Cimone in honor of his father). Strong was the cultural influence of the clash: the famous Athenian playwright Aeschylus in his epitaph considered participation in the battle as the most important undertaking of his life, so as to obscure its 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 related to the oplitic deployment, until then considered inferior to the 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 way and therefore 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 shown by the Greek prudence in the battle of Plataea) but, if used in the right circumstances, could prove decisive.

Starting in the twentieth century, especially after the First World War, many scholars have departed from this line of thought: suggested that the Persians could have positively influenced Greece, which was always torn apart by fratricidal wars between the poleis, and pointed out that the battle of Marathon had, ultimately, considerably less weight than Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea; Some historians, however, have opposed this last point, stating that Marathon, postponing the second Persian invasion, gave time to the Athenians to discover and exploit the silver mines of Laurio, whose proceeds funded the construction of the fleet of 200 triremes wanted by Themistocles; these were the ships that, in 480 BC. C., faced and stood up to the Persians all”Artemisio and Salamis. Despite these new perspectives, some twentieth-century and contemporary historians have continued to consider Marathon a fundamental turning point in Greek and Western history.

Plutarch mentions that the Athenians said they had seen the ghost of the mythical king Theseus during the battle: this supposition is also supported by his representation in the mural painting of the Stoà Pecile, in which he fights together with other heroes and the twelve gods of Olympus. According to Nicholas Sekunda this legend could be the result of the propaganda made in the years 460 BC by Cimone, son of Milziade.

Pausanias reports that would have participated in the battle also a peasant from the rough appearance, that after having made massacre of Persians with a plow would have disappeared in the nothing; when the Athenians went to consult in purpose the oracle of Delphi, Apollo answered them to venerate like a hero Echetlo (“from the handle of plow”).


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 gigantic hoplite, whose beard covered his entire shield, who passing by him killed the soldier next to him.

In the following years Darius began to gather a second immense army to subdue Greece: this plan was postponed because of the insurrection of Egypt, previously conquered by Cambyses II of Persia. Darius died shortly after and his son Xerxes I, succeeded to the throne, to tame the rebellion, then resumed with rapidity the preparations for the military campaign against the polis of Athens and more generally against all Greece.


  1. Battaglia di Maratona
  2. Battle of Marathon
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