The Ghosts of Marathon

For one of the most important battles in the history of Greece, not to mention the culmination of the first six books of Herodotus’ Histories, accounts of the battle of Marathon in 490 BC seem to be more about the supernatural than the living world, more spook than spear.

Herodotus’ account (6.100-117) is full of encounters with gods, phantoms and spirits. Along the way, what actually happened at the battle seems to have become an afterthought of the account.

A very spooky looking Herodotus portrait

First, we have the account of the runner Philippides (although other accounts give him different names). On his first run (that is to Sparta to ask for aid, not his second from the battlefield to Athens) he encountered the god Pan. Herodotus tells us (6.105.1-3) that when Philippides “was in the Parthenian mountain above Tegea he encountered Pan. Pan called out Philippides’ name and bade him ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, though he was of goodwill to the Athenians, had often been of service to them, and would be in the future.”

Herodotus tells us that “The Athenians believed that these things were true, and when they became prosperous they established a sacred precinct of Pan beneath the Acropolis. Ever since that message they propitiate him with annual sacrifices and a torch-race.”That is, however, before we find out that Pan did indeed wreak his panic on the Persians at the battle.

Polyaenus records a stratagem (1.2.1) whereby Pan was the first to create a regular system for the marshalling of an army and he invented the phalanx, “and arrranged it with a right and left wing; from which he is usually represented with horns. Victory always belonged to the strongest sword, until he pointed the way to conquest by artifice and manoeuvre.” How then could every victory of the phalanx not be his? "More than that, in warfare, imaginary and pointless fears in warfare are the stratagems of Pan, that is why they are called panics (Polyaenus 1.2.2).

Pausanias (1.28.4) also tells us of Philippides’ encounter “Philippides went on to say that near Mount Parthenion he had been met by Pan, who told him that he was friendly to the Athenians and would come to Marathon to fight for them. This deity, then, has been honoured for this announcement.”

The peak of Mount Parthenion (on the right)

But stories of Greeks encountering their gods on the battlefield are nothing new you will say – it is a core of the Iliad and there are many battles, later than Marathon, where men encountered Castor and Pollux on the battlefield. Fair point. But the story gets even more spooky.

The battle of Marathon

Herodotus tells us that when the Persians landed at Marathon, the only city to send help was Plataea (6.108.1, 6). It is Cornelius Nepos (Miltiades 5.1) who tells us there were 1,000 Plataeans and that they brought the strength of the Athenians up to 10,000 men (i.e. 9,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans). Command devolved on Miltiades (6.110) and he marshalled the army so that Callimachus was on the right wing. The other tribes “were numbered out in succession next to each other” (6.111.1) – the Greek here means that they were lined up according to strength. This is a complicated matter – the ten tribal taxeis of the Athenian army had a traditional order, but it would seem that that order was not followed at Marathon (or any other battle when we have enough information).

Plutarch tells us that the tribes of Leontis and Antiochis were together in the centre of the Athenian line (Aristides 5.3) but they were not next to one another in the traditional order. On a battlefield, the order of the tribes following the traditional order (see Demosthenes Funeral Oration 27-31) would be: Antiochis, Aiantis, Hippothontis, Cecropis, Oineis, Acamantis, Leontis, Pandionis, Aigeis, Erechtheis. This order places the primary tribe, Erechtheis on the right, the position of honour. At Marathon, the tribe on the right was Aiantis, Callimachus’ tribe.

What is more, in one of Herodotus’ crucial chapters on the battle he tells us that the Athenian line was deployed to equal the length of the Persian line – (6.111.3) “As the Athenians were marshalled at Marathon, it happened that their line of battle was as long as the line of the Medes. The centre, where the line was weakest, was only a few ranks deep, but each wing was strong in numbers.”

This is a perplexing section and has led to many reconstructions, made worse by the fact that Herodotus only provides the Persian casualty numbers, not the size of their army. Cornelius Nepos tells us there were 100,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry (Miltiades 5.5) – no one accepts those numbers (though his Greek army numbers are accepted). What is more, Herodotus’ account includes no account of cavalry action whatsoever (that will become important).


The battlefield of Marathon today looking from the Persian position towards the Athenians

Herodotus’ account then moves swiftly (6.112.1-2). The Athenians moved out and charged the Perisans at a run, no less than eight stadia away (1,480 metres). The Persians were gobsmacked. No one had ever run at them before, especially without cavalry or archers (and we are told the Athenians were the first to run at them and the first to not be afraid (Herodotus 6.112.3).

The actual account of the battle swiftly reaches its conclusion – (6.113.1-2) – the battle lasted a long time. In the centre, the Persians broke through the Athenian line “a pursued them inland” – another one of Herodotus’ perplexing phrases in regard to the battle. On the wings, however, the Athenians and Plataeans prevailed, they routed the troops opposing them and then joined to defeat he Persians in the centre and then chased the Persians to their ships seeking to set them alight.

Ghosts of Marathon

And that, dear reader, is the battle, the culmination of six books and eight hundred or more years of conflict in Herodotus’ narrative. But the ghost stories are about to start. First (6.114) we are told of the casualties – Callimachus the Polemarch was killed, as was Stesilaus, son of Thrasylaus, and Cynegirus, son of Euphorion and brother of Aeschylus the playwright. “Many other famous Athenians also fell there.” We are told 192 Athenians died and 6,400 Persians (6.117.1).


Just the place for a ghost! - the marshes of the Marathon plain

Herodotus then tells us about Epizelus, son of Couphagoras (6.117.2-3). An Athenian, fighting in the front rank, suddenly lost his sight though he had suffered no wound. He told the story (one Herodotus had presumably heard him tell) that, as he was fighting, he saw a huge man whose “beard overshadowed his shield, but the phantom passed him by and killed the man next to him.” The punishment for looking on a god in Greek culture was blindness, hence their temples were places without light.    


The Soros burial mound of the 192 Athenian dead still haunts the battlefield of Marathon today.

But the spooky stories of Marathon do not stop there. When Aeschylus wrote his play The Persians in 372 BC, he included a ghost scene (the first ghost scene in drama?) where the ghost of the Persian king Darius haunted Atossa, mother of Xerxes I who had just lost at Salamis (lines 681-842): “do not take the field against the Hellenes’ land, even if the forces of the Medes outnumber theirs. The land itself is their ally.” (line 790) – a ghostly lesson he had learned but which Xerxes ignored (albeit written by an Athenian for an Athenian audience).

The Persians has perhaps also the earliest ‘I told you so’ scene in drama (and it contains the first dream sequence). Pausanias (1.32.4) told the ghost story that in his own time (the late second century AD, almost 700 years later), every night on the field of Marathon could be heard “horses neighing and men fighting”.

This account, and that of Cornelius Nepos featured cavalry and yet Herodotus’ account did not. Nor, apparently, did the Stoa Poikile painting of the battle. Cornelius Nepos, as we noted, had 10,000 Persian cavalry but the absence of the Persian cavalry from the battle accounts (not to mention the idea that they should have played a decisive role) is just one of the many unanswered questions about the battle.

The Marathonians, we are told, worshipped the spirits of the dead Athenians, and the Athenian dead had the rare honour of being buried on the field (in the Soros) rather than being transported back to Athens and being buried (or having their ashes interred) along the road to Plato’s later Academy.

At Athens, the 192 dead may have been specifically remembered in the frieze of the Parthenon, haunting forever (and to this day) their city. The veterans of the battle, the Marathonomachai in a way haunted all future Athenian military endeavours right down into the Peloponnesian War. What they achieved in the defence of Athens could never be hoped to be equalled no matter how glorious. Many subsequent Athenian generals were haunted by their memories, but very few came close to expelling those ghosts of Marathon.

OOOoooooOOOO – would you be willing to brave the battle of Marathon and its ghosts?

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