Thoughts on the Battle of Marathon, 490 BC

Last Wednesday, I gave a lecture, for which I had been invited, at the University of Ghent in Belgium on the Battle of Marathon. The lecture was the second in a series on battles in Greece from earliest times to the modern age and I was specifically asked to touch upon an Archaic or Classical battle. A paper version of my talk will be published in the institute’s yearly journal, Tetradio, in 2016. The text will be in Dutch, but it will also include an English summary.

When originally asked to give a lecture, I first picked the Battle of Thermopylae as my topic. But as I was working on that, I realized I could never fit what I wanted to say about it in the span of a 60 to 75-minute talk. There’s just too much ground to cover. Instead, Marathon struck me as the ideal topic: a single battle, often considered one of history’s defining moments, which serves as a good introduction to the Persian Wars as a whole.

The title of my lecture can be translated as “The miracle of Marathon? The Athenian victory over the Persians in 490 BC”. The lecture was divided into four major parts, followed by a conclusion. In the first part, I focused on the sources for the battle. The single major source is, of course, Herodotus. But other authors also wrote about Marathon, though never in as much detail as he did, and they can offer interesting additional information. Aside from written texts, there’s also plenty of other material that we can draw upon: vase-paintings (nearly all from Athens or at least Attica), and an array of archaeological data (particularly the remains of the dead on the battlefield itself).

The road to Marathon

The second part of my lecture was a summary of the road to Marathon. I briefly discussed the rise of the Persian Empire – the largest empire the ancient world had yet seen, which was only a little over half a century old when the Athenians fought some of its armed forces at Marathon. Naturally, I gave a brief overview of the political situation in Greece, and the fact that Athens, in 507/506, gave earth and water to Persia and forged an alliance. They would betray this alliance later by lending support to the Greeks in Asia Minor during the Ionian Revolts, which were crushed by Persia in 493 BC.

Herodotus presents Marathon as a punitive expedition, but this seems doubtful. To the Persians, Athens had indeed betrayed their trust. But Athens was relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Persian inscriptions, in which the extent of the Empire is described, present the Aegean and its peoples as existing on the very fringe, and relatively unimportant. All Persia seemed to care for, was that its borders were stable. Adding territory was a good way for a king to increase his prestige, which explains Darius’ forays into the lands of the Scythians, Thracians, and indeed Greeks.

But the Battle of Marathon was the final stop in a Persian campaign to domesticate the unruly Greeks. Datis and Artaphernes were placed at the head of an expedition that conquered various Aegean islands, subdued Carystus on Euboea, besieged Eretria (and deported its inhabitants), before landing at Marathon, where the Persians spent several days raiding the countryside with little opposition.

The actual battle

The actual battle was the subject of the third part of my lecture. The Athenians had marched out and were joined by a small force of Plataeans. Herodotus doesn’t give any numbers; later sources claim that the Greek army consisted of 9,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans. The Spartans were asked for help, but were unable to come. Herodotus comes across as puzzled, and the statement he gives suggests religious reasons; Plato would later suggest that the Spartans had first to deal with a revolt among their Messenian helots. Eventually, the Athenian general Miltiades managed to convince the polemarch Callimachus to attack the Persians, perhaps when the latter were on the verge of leaving. They famously broke into a run – when exactly, how fast they ran or for how long, nobody knows for certain – and attacked the Persian forces. The fighting was long and hard, but the Athenians were victorious.

The Battle of Marathon is an excellent case study, as it shows just how little we know, despite having such good source like Herodotus. Many details are unclear. Did Miltiades plan everything out in detail, including the famous pincer movement that crushed the Persian forces? Or did the Athenians win through sheer luck? How many men fought? Herodotus only says that the Persians had a fleet of 600 ships. The 192 Athenian dead and 11 Plataeans are probably exact figures, since their names were recorded in stone, but the number of 6,400 dead for the Persians strikes as false: 6,400 is 33.33 times 192, rounded up.

The importance of Marathon

The fourth and final part of my lecture was on the importance of Marathon. Some claim that Marathon was of central importance not just to Athenian or Greek history, but to Western history as a whole. That’s a bold statement, for which authors generally have no proof. I spent some time dissecting this fallacy, going back to the days of Meyer and Weber, briefly revisiting my earlier criticism of such work as Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War, before citing Robert Graves’s poem, The Persian Version, as an antidote to overly high appraisals of the Battle of Marathon.  

The victory at Marathon was, on the whole, rather unimportant to the Persians. If they had won, they would have installed Hippias, the tyrant who had been expelled from Athens in 510, as ruler of Athens, but his reign would probably have been short-lived, anyway. The Persians did not have the numbers to press an attack on the rest of Greece. Instead, Marathon was important only for the Athenians: it showed to them that they could not only defeat the Achaemenid Empire, but could even do so without the help of the Spartans, who arrived after the battle was already over and could do nothing but congratulate the victors.

The talk went smoothly and I got some good questions afterwards; not everyone was convinced that the battle was as unimportant in the grand scheme of things as I suggested it was, which is always a good sign. I’d like to thank the people from the university’s “Griekenlandcentrum” for inviting me. Berenice Verhelst took good care of me, Gunnar de Boel gave a great introduction to my talk, and Pieter Borghart was swift in emailing me the necessary guidelines as regards the paper version of this lecture for publication in Tetradio. If you are ever in Ghent and the institute organizes another lecture, be sure to attend.

I am currently working on a review article about recent books on Marathon, to be published on the website of the UNRV sometime in the very near future, with recommendations. As far as books on the battle are concerned, I would be remiss if I didn’t point you to the Ancient Warfare special that was published in 2011, exactly 2500 years after the battle was fought. I am also planning to write a book on the Persian Wars, hopefully for publication in 2016 or 2017 (probably in Dutch), so I will undoubtedly revisit the topic in future blog posts.

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