On Sept. 12, 490 B.C., an outnumbered Athenian army defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, repelling the Persian invasion.
Athenians Rout Invading Persians
In the late fourth century and early fifth century B.C., the Persians controlled Asia Minor, much of southwest Asia, and parts of southeastern Europe. However, Ionian Greeks, who lived along the Aegean Sea in present-day Turkey, began to revolt against their local governors with the assistance of the Athenians in eastern mainland Greece. The Ionian Revolt was defeated in 492 B.C.
Persian King Darius I, who had wanted to expand his empire into Europe, sought to punish the Athenians for their actions. He sent an army to Greece in 492; it conquered Thrace in northern Greece, but a storm wrecked its ships as it was moving south. Darius then sent emissaries through Greece to demand submission; most city-states submitted, but Athens and Sparta, located in southern Greece, refused, leading to war.
A Persian army led by Datis and Artapherne sailed across the Aegean Sea, conquering islands as it moved toward Athens. The ships landed at Marathon, a town located north of Athens. The Athenian army, consisting of 9,000 Athenian soldiers and 1,000 Plataean allies, marched up to meet the Persian army, and the two sides spent nine days waiting for the other to attack.
Though the Athenians were waiting for Spartan forces to arrive as reinforcements, Miltiades, one of their 10 generals, implored the others to launch an offensive. Needing to convince the general Callimachos (or Callimachus) to win support for the offensive, Miltiades said, according to ancient historian Herodotus, “With thee now it rests, Callimachos, either to bring Athens under slavery, or by making her free to leave behind thee for all the time that men shall live a memorial such as not even Harmodios and Aristogeiton have left.”
Callimachus agreed; Miltiades ordered his troops to form a line and make a direct charge at the Persians, estimated between 20,000 and 48,000. They attacked in a phalanx formation (a tightly packed rectangular formation), with each soldier armed with a large spear, breastplate and large shield that covered most of his body.
Though the Persians had a larger force, their weapons and armor were inferior, and they were not prepared for a direct attack. According to Herodotus’ account, the flanks of the Athenian army defeated the Persians, and then engulfed the Persians in the center. The Athenians won the battle, killing an estimated 6,400 Persians while losing only 192 men (these numbers were likely exaggerated by Herodotus).
The Persians retreated to their ships and sailed toward Athens, hoping to reach the undefended city before the Athenian army could return. The Athenians marched double-time back to the city and reached it before the Persians did. Datis and Artapherne decided to return to Asia rather than launch an attack on the city, thus ending the Persian invasion of Greece.
Chapter VI of “The Histories,” by Herodatus, translation by G. C. Macaulay (1890)
According to legend, the messenger Pheidippides was sent ahead of the Athenian army to Athens to tell the city about the victory. He reached the city, but died of exhaustion after the roughly 26-mile run.
The story is almost certainly a myth. Learn the true story of Pheidippides and how the marathon race came into existence.
Historical Context: Greco-Persian Wars
The Battle of Marathon was an early battle in the Greco-Persian Wars, a series of conflicts between Persia and the Greek states fought between 492–449 B.C.
“Although the Persian empire was at the peak of its strength, the collective defense mounted by the Greeks overcame seemingly impossible odds and even succeeded in liberating Greek city-states on the fringe of Persia itself,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica. “The Greek triumph ensured the survival of Greek culture and political structures long after the demise of the Persian empire.”
What Day Did the Battle Occur?
Sources in this Story
- HistoryNet (Military History magazine): Battle of Marathon: Greeks Versus the Persians
- EyeWitness to History: The Battle of Marathon, 490 BC
- Livius.org: Battle of Marathon
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Greco-Persian Wars
- Space.com: Marathon Man: Astronomer Sleuths Revise Date of Ancient Run
Sept. 12 has traditionally been considered the date of the Battle of Marathon. The date was determined by 19th-century German scholar August Boeckh, based on his analysis of the lunar calendar and the account of Pheidippides’ trip to Sparta.
According to Herodotus, Pheidippides had run to Sparta before the battle to ask for assistance. The Spartans told him that they could not go to war until the end of their religious festival, which would end six days later when the moon was full.
Using the Athenian calendar, Boeckh determined that the full moon occurred in September. However, some modern researchers believe that the Spartan calendar and the Athenian calendar differed by a month that year because there had been an extra full moon. These researchers, therefore, believe that the battle occurred in August.