One of the interesting aspects of this battle is the path that the Athenian hoplites took to get to the plains of Marathon. In short, like a lot of what we know about ancient Greek history, we just do not know the truth, but we can come to a conclusion baised on the things we do know. In this article there are two main areas we can use, that we do know about to come to a conclusion. The first is the topology, the second is military tactics, namely hoplite tactics, used at that time.
To help us gain an insite into this, first we will be looking at the topology of Attica, as the heights, mountains that is needed to work out how they could have got there. Generally, there are two paths agreed to by students of the battle that might have been taken by the Athenians.
Mount Pentelikon lyes smack bang right between the city-state of Athens and the Bay of Marathon, where by the time frame we are looking at the Persian forces had already landed. The option of having the Athenian army march directly over the highest part of the mountain, is mute, their options are to go over the northern pass or around the southern boarder of the range. The 'northern' path, requires a march that goes through over hilly and mountainous areas the 'southern' path leads around the base of Mout Pentelikon.
Herodotus, says that when the Athenian forces reached Marathon they set up their defensive position in the 'grove of Hercules' and there dug themselves in and surrounded themselves with a palasade. Which includes trees being cut down and cut so that the trunks have a spike and are dug in so that they face outwards. Unfortunatley, the 'grove of Hercules' can't be located so it can't be used to identify where the Athenians dug themselves in.
The Persian navy lay in the place called the dog's tail, a safe houbour for the fleet, some of the ships were beached, others had weighed anchor behind them in the sea. Down the whole penninsular it is all sandy beaches, the rest of the plain, as per in the map is reletaivly level and as can be imagined great for growing crops, and at the time of the battle would have been overrun by olive trees mostly growing wild.
Before we delve any further into which path the Athenian army marched towards Marathon, it has to be stated I've already made up my mind beforehand and you may find my arguments biased too heavily towards one side. If you do I apologise and I hope you use the attached information with referencing to other books and websites to come to your final conclusion.
Lets look at the 'northern' route first. At first glance it may seem that an army marching to this destination looks like they would come out nearly on top of the Persian forces, but this is not correct, there is more than enough room for the Athenian army to come down from the range and dig themselves in at that spot. However, unlike the southern path, the northern path goes through high terrain and would force the hoplites of Athens to travel in a formation that might allow the Persian army the chance to ambush the Athenians enroute to Marathon. However, travelling via the souther route, the Persian forces did not have the ability to catch them unaware and certainly wouldn't be able to ambush them before they reached Marathon.
Less convincingly but still plausable is the fact that if the Athenians did travel via the northern route this would allow the Persian cavalry the ability to travel south down the penincular and the option of them attacking Athens itself at their lesiuer. The cavalry would be far too fast and reach the what we must consider the undefended city-state before the hoplites could on their own legs make it back.
Secondly, we will use the military tactics that we know the hoplites of ancient Greece used around 500 B.C. Even though the Persian forces outnumbered the Athenian forces, the greatest threat facing the Athenians was the Persian cavalry, Herodotus says the Persian forces did include the cavalry. The hoplites used the phalanx to engage with their enemy, men interlocked and marched straight out to face their opponents, the quick legs of the horses allowed the cavalry to quickly ride around, and smash into the phalanx on either of it's sides which is fundermentally weak, or even worse the cavalry might be able to hurttle themselves into the rear, which causes the phalanx to breakdown and a quicker victory. So, for a phalanx the cavalry is the scariest thing to see on the battlefield, especically when the horses can ride around at will, and just to pick their spot.
One way a hoplite force using phalanx tactics can reduce the impact a cavalry might have in a battle is for the phalanx to line up with either a mountain or rocky outcrop on their side, or just as good a body of water on their side. The reason for this is that the cavalry's abililty to run around the phalanx is greatly reduced because of the natural protection on their flanks.
Knowing this we find if the Athenian's marched via the northern route, when they come down from the range they would find themselves with a mountain range covering their rear and their flanks completely exposed! Preferable for the Persian cavalry, this way they would find themselves with the ability to threaten the Athenain phalanx on both flanks. But if we looke at the southern route, the phalanx has the moutain range on their left and the sea to their right, exactly what phalanx military tactics would require of them.
- *1 'Histories' by Herodotus; published by Wordsworth 1996 (6.101)
- *2 'Histories' by Herodotus; published by Wordsworth 1996 (6.102)