The Battle of Marathon - 490 B.C.

Eukles runs the MarathonA messenger [1] was told to immediately run back home and give the news of a great victory. Here, with the fate of a city and the life of democracy at risk, through the heat and battle ridden, he ran the 24 miles[2] across the plains of Marathon, with the message that Athens longed to hear.

Having picked up the prisoners the Persian ships rather than heading towards Asia made Athens.

At Marathon, to make sure all the booty would stay intaked, it was agreeded to that one tribe would stay behind, while the other 9 would return to Athens as quickly as possible, to defend the city. It makes perfect sense to have trusted the tribe of Antiochis, lead by the most trusted man in Athens Aristides the Just. The other tribes now made their way back to Athens as best and as fast as they could.

Entering the agora (the market) the Marathon runner uttered the words 'NENIKIKAMEN' (we are victorious) and fell to the ground in complete exhaustion, never to recover, and later dieing, probably from any combination of heat stroke, exhaustion and battle injuries.[3]

The Persians round the cape for AthensA short while later a message came from the port 'the barbarians are coming'. The city prepared for battle, old men, children and women got ready for the fight of their lives, there would be no further talk of surrendering the city, they prayed to their patron god Athena to save them and got ready as best they could.

But just at this time the army had succeeded in reaching the city [4] and immediately lined up on the barricades and fortifications. The barbarian fleet now rested on their oars awhile, contemplating their next move. But soon after they departed and sailed away to Asia.

News of MarathonNothing can better attest to the fitness, discipline and physical endurance of the Attic hoplite than their advance to Marathon, their triumph over a far larger enemy force, and then their return home to confront the enemy. With long spears like a thicket of death, and their bronze shields and corselets gleaming in the triumphant sun of Greece, who could blame the Persian fleet for not wanting to test the Athenians in battle again? Certainly not the Persian King Darius who welcomed his fleet back as triumphant heroes for taken control of the Aegean Sea and handing Darius the slaves he had asked for.

While there were many other battles to come, Marathon was the most crucial and pivotal for several reasons. Firstly, it reinvigorated the Greek resistance and demoralised the Persian troops. Secondly, it was the first battle where the Greeks had resisted the Persians and been victorious; moreover, they had done so with inferior numbers. Thirdly, it cost the Persians a good portion of their attack force, blunting the following battles that would come, and that would fail. Thus, while not as daring as the stand at Thermopylae , nor as amazing as the battle of Salamis, the battle of Marathon is an inspiring tale of Greek bravery, and the pivotal engagement in the Persian War.


After 490 B.C., a new coin was introduced in Athens featuring images of an an olive branch, an owl and the letters 'AOE'. The coin was widely used and many copies of the coin have been discovered. The origin of the coin may be that it has links with the Battle of Marathon and helps us answer the important question of what path was taken to get from Athens to the plains to Marathon.


It is generally argued that there is only really two ways that the Athenians could have reached Marathon, one is between the pass of the mountain range and the other is following the coastline and the sea to get there. The reasons against going over the pass is that the army would have had to march, in some instances, in single file to get there, not exactly what you would want your army to get caught at by a Persian army. But the more compelling evidence is that the Athenian army when they left their city must of wanted to meet the Persians outside the city, otherwise, they would have just sat in their city and waited for the Persians to come to them. The threat of elements inside Athens helping turn the city over to the Persians voluntarely was real. The Athenians must face the Persians in battle away from the city and could not risk missing them or letting them getting by without a battle. If the Athenian march went over the pass there was a very real threat that the Persians would march via the coastline, their fleet on their left by-pass the Athenian army and fall upon a city without a army.

The olive grove sacred to Hercules was where the Athenian army waited out before engaging the Persian forces. It is suggested that the protection that the trees offered the Athenians, especially against Persian cavalry and archers, as well as the presence of owls in the branches would later lead to the popular coinage print at Athens after 490 B.C.


It is more plauseable that the Athenians followed the coastline, the Persians would not want to march over a mountain range where they might be ambushed and also move away from their fleet who could offer them protection, their cavalry also would suffer going over a mountain range, the flat plans of the coastline is much more favourable for them. The Athenians had to face them, the coastline route is the better miliarty option. Also, just where the coastline route gets near the plains of Marathon, there was a olive grove sacred to Hercules, where it seems the Athenians camped, with the Persian forces further up the coastline, next to their fleet. The Athenians were camped in those sacred trees for ten days. The true meaning of the owl on the coin nows comes into focus, owls can nest in olive trees, AOE stands for Athena the Protector and the presence of the oilve trees protecting the army from Persian archers and cavalry is obvious.

The Athenians camped in the olive grove for 10 days, no doubt while there the sounds of the owls in the trees not only comforted them but as the owl is the symbol of the goddess Athena, they would have seen this as a symbol of the goddess protecting them.

If this is true then when the armies engaged, the Persians did not therefore have the sea to their backs (which you will see in many books and web sites), but had the sea to their left and the Athenians had the sea to their right, nulifiing a cavalry charge from that direction.






Discussion points

Why did the two armies face off for eleven days before engageing in a battle?

Both sides were playing the waiting game. The Athenians thought it best to wait before engaging in battle because:
-The longer they waited the more time they gave to the Spartans to arrive
-The Persian forces heavily outnumbered the Athenian, they were in no hurry to battle them.

The Persians on the other hand:
-Were waiting for the signal from their interests in the city that meant that Athens was ready to be taken.
-The Athenians were in a heavily fortified position, trees had been uprooted and sharp spikes were ready to meet then. Encamped within an olive grove this reduced the effectivness of the cavalry and archers. It would be more advantageous for them if the Athenians attacked the Persians on the beach, making the cavalry and archers more effective.

How could the Persian cavalry be so ineffective in this battle?

Herodotus suggests that their charge was too swift, but contradicts this when he says that the struggle was long drawn out (maybe a couple of hours).

There seems a real chance that the Persians had already decided to take a chance at capturing Athens. Therefore, the contention is that after 10 or more days of a stalemate the Persians decided to leave under cover of night board their boats and head straight for Athens, leaving the Greek army stagnant at Marathon. For whatever reason this was not pulled off entirely overnight, the cavlary boarding the ships and the army to follow (they couldn't have boarded the army first, leaving their calvary on the battlefield with the entire Athenian army as well, too much chance of loosing all their horses; horses are also hard to board onto the ships and need more time than soldiers). Thus when the Greek charge came they probably took on the Persian rear guard; (it now makes it more understandable why the Persian broke rank and ran for their ships, and why the fiercest fighting took place at the ships, where most of the Greeks that died in the battle, happened there).

The effect of all this was that the cavalry was ineffective because they were caught behind their men on the boats.

The opposing agrument to this is that there was no real cavalry ever sent to Marathon, maybe a small contingent but nothing of military value. Herodotus does say that the Persians did 'dismembark their horses'' [1] and 'there was no place in all Attica so convenient for their horse as Marathon...' [2], but does not state their number. In point form the arguments against the Persians sending a sizeable cavalry to Marathon are:
-The Persians island hopped until they reached Greece, why would they need to send a sizeable cavarly force to attack islands?
-The horses require alot of maintainance and fresh water every day to look after, transports full of horses would be both risky and high maintainance.
- Diodorus writing at a much later period says that the Ionians who were with the Persians carved on a tree a message to the Athenians that 'the cavalry are away', but the interpretation of this message could also be read to say 'the cavalry is not here'. The Athenains and Miltiadies would have been very conscience of the Persian cavalry, Miltiadies seeing first hand what damage they could do against foot soliders, so if the Athenians were asking the Ionians about the Persian cavalry, their spirits would have been uplifted in knowing they did not send many.

If the Athenians didn't met the Persians at Marathon and hid inside their city walls, wouldn't the Spartans have come before Athens fell?

General Miltiades decision to attack the Persians at Marathon and not hole up inside the city walls, was a bold move and contrary to the thinking of many, who would have preferred to wait for the enemy to advance upon the city itself. Athens was already walled at the time, but his decision to engage at Marathon suggest that the walls were not sufficiently strong enough to be able to withstand a well-conducted siege, the Athenians had already discovered what had happened to the cities in Ionia, who had tried that tactic.

Would the Spartans have arrived to help? I think yes, but if I was thinking like an Athenian at that time, there is no way that I would have counted on them to save Athens. The Thebans to the north would have allied with the Persian giving them food and men in the process, putting the city of Athens under enormous strain. Even more north of Thebes, the Persian already governed and more reinforcements would have arrived and with the Persian 600 boat navy, they would have been able to cut Athens off from the sea.

Why did Persia bother picking up the slaves, when they could have set sail straight to an undefended Athens?

Eukles last words are heardIt seems unbelievable to the modern student of battles that a commander would have gone back to pick up slaves captured earlier, after the battle of Marathon, before heading towards and undefended Athens for an attack. This delay allowed enough time for the Athenian hoplites to return and fortify their city before the Persian navy could strike.

But to Datis the Mede, who was the commander of the Persian fleet this made perfect sense. King Darius had expressly said that he wanted slaves returned from the expedition. If the Persian had not lost time picking up the slaves left on the island and could not take Athens, the Great King would have been furious and considered the mission a failure.

As it was they couldn't take Athens and returned home victorious and considered heroes for arriving back successful in capturing the islands that lay between Asia and Greece and with the slaves that the Great King requested.

NEXT PAGE>>>after the battle of Marathon


  • *1 'Histories' by Herodotus; published by Wordsworth 1996 (6.101)
  • *2 'Histories' by Herodotus; published by Wordsworth 1996 (6.102)



Other web sites of interest:

also see

Art reference:
Jean-Pierre Cortot, ( 1787 -1843 ), made in 1834 The soldier of Marathon announcing victory (French: Le soldat de Marathon annonçant la victoire )





Other pages:
-Who made the run at Marathon?
-The march from Athens to Marathon.
-Pheidippides and the God of Fear (Pan)

Note#1: Who ran the Marathon back to Athens? Go here.

Note#2: Not 26.2 miles as is generally supposed. This error has been caused by measuring the distance to the modern village of Marathon, rather than to the actual site of the battle.

Note#3: A snake bite cannot be ruled out also. Continual running would have pumped the venom around the body.

Note#4: It has been entertained that a select group of runners were to travel on the heels of the first runner to give as much assistance to the city quickly. A group of runners carring minimal equipment with the rest of the army to follow them as quickly as they could. Though this paragraph has not been substanciated with an archialogical find but put forward as a hypothisis, due to the nature of the battle and what would have been needed to be organised. It would also explain nicely how troops arrived more quickly after the first runner.

A modern monument made to those who fought at the Battle of Marathon.



Archaeological Museum at Olympia, Greece.

To the left is the helmet of the Athenian General Miltiades, with the inscription inside "Miltiades dedicated to Zeus", it may be that the helmet was dedicated after the Battle of Marathon. However, evidence exists that the helmet ended up in Olympia up to 10 years later. Adding to the suggestion that the helmet was donated by Kimon the son of Miltiades. The helmet on the right was taken from one of the Persians vanquished.



Athenian treasury at Delphi.

Herodotus tells us that for the first time Athenian slaves were freed so that they could fight for the Athenian cause. After the battle, the Athenians built this treasury at Delphi to hold all their offerings to the oracle. It may be that the temple was already built and the inscriptions on it refering to Marathon were added after.


Kallias II
Aristides the Just - General
Miltiades - General
Callimachus - Polemarch†
Kynegeiros son of Euphorion†
Stesilaos son of Thrasylaos†
Epizelus son of Kuphagoras




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