The battle of Marathon between Greeks
(Athens and Plataea) and Persia is one of the most famous in western military
history and occupies a leading place in most general military history books.
But the only significant original source is the "Histories' written by
Herodotus a generation and more after the battle. His account is brief and
presumes no doubt correctly that his readers already knew most of what he had
learned from his research. There are also a few secondary mentions of the
battle by later Greek and Roman authors. But Herodotus has left it to modern
authors (sometimes scholars) to expand on his descriptions and pose questions
about aspects he left out or left incomplete. We now have a new book by
Professor Billows that combines a concise description of the battle with an
extensive argument that an Athenian loss there would have irrevocably changed
the entire course of Western Civilization and culture. A review of this book is
here. And an annotated listing of other
books on the subject is here. These
comprise two related but separate subjects - the battle itself - and the
potential results of the battle in the context of prior and subsequent history.
For an aerial view of Greece one can use Google maps and then zoom in to see
the relationship of Marathon to Athens and also zoom further to see the
battlefield in more detail. Google has provided links right on these maps to
excellent photography including many views of the beach and bay and several of
the Soros mound in which the Athenian dead were buried. This gives a much
better appreciation of the battlefield than in any of the diagrams I have found
in text accounts of the battle.
In this essay I will attempt to
describe the battle based on my synthesis of the descriptions and analysis
provided by authors from Herodotus to the present.
What are we confident that we know?
Prebattle - the economic and political situation in Athens and its context for
Athenian military affairs. The background of Persian - Greek relations and the
causes and objectives of the Persian invasion.
Prebattle - nature of the Greek and Persian armies, their armament, tactics,
By the time of Marathon the Athenians had discarded the bronze 'bell' corselet
and instead wore a composite corselet composed of a single body piece on the
chest and two shoulder pieces laced in front. This was made of leather covered
with iron scales. attached to the bottom were leather strips. The hoplite wore
a large helmet and bronze greaves. He carried a large circular shield made of
wood with a bronze covering. He carried a long spear and sword. The citizenry
of Athens had been reorganized into ten 'tribes' each made up 1/3 of citizens
living in and around Athens itself, 1/3 of residents of the farming communities
across the hills, and1/3 of the fishermen and other residents living to the
south along the lengthy Attica coastline. The political purpose was to
integrate the population and expand the effective power of all the varied
citizens. But this also resulted in the composition of the hoplite tactical
formation of each of these ten units being composed of individuals who did not
see each other in day-to-day contact. Apart from the Spartans, the Greek
hoplites did not receive much training. In battle they relied on their close
formations to provide maximum protection each man to his neighbors. The tactics
were simple, a straight ahead push to force the opposing formation to crumble.
The Persian infantry came from various groups. The best infantry were the
Persian and Sakae who formed the center of the Persian line. The Sakae were
mainly unarmored archers. The Persians carried both bow and spear. They wore no
helmet but some had iron scale armor. The front ranks carried the 'gerron' an
oval wicker shield.
- Location - the relatively flat area near the beach at Marathon Bay on the
east coast of Attica, Greece. The actual battle took place toward the southern
end of this area near where hilly terrain approaches the beach, while the
Persian ships and camp were located at considerable distance to the northern
end of the bay. Various reconstructions indicate the battle lines were parallel
with the beach (with Persians on the water side) or perpendicular to the beach
(with Persians on the northern side). The Soros mound where the Athenian dead
were buried still exists.
-Date - 11 August, 490 B.C. - Dated from the date of the full moon that month
Persian Commanders - Datis and Artaphernes
- Athenian Commanders - Kallimachos, Miltiades, Aristides, Themistocles,
Stesilaos and six more - Platians, Arimnestos
- Casualties - Greek 192 dead - Persian 6,400 dead - wounded unknown - the
Athenian dead were enumerated by name on the memorial which Herodotus could see
- the Persian dead were counted by Athenians because they had vowed to
sacrifice a goat for each one, hence needed an accurate count - but deaths from
wounds subsequent to the battle were not known. Not known, however, is how many
of the Persian dead were warriors versus grooms or other non-combatants.
- Strategic motives and objectives - Persian - punish Eretria and Athens for
intervention in Ionian revolt - expand general control over Greece initiated in
previous campaigns. Athenian - preserve independence - prevent return of
Hippias to power - maintain the political control of the incumbents.
Tactical objectives - Persian - to negate the Athenian force that had encamped
on a hill overlooking the beach - Athenian - to prevent the Persians from
either re-embarking and sailing directly to Athens or from marching toward
Athens destroying villages and crops. Or, if the Persians had indeed already
embarked a portion of their army, then to defeat the remainder and hurry back
to Athens to defend the city.
Of what are we unsure but of which we
believe we have a reasonable knowledge?
Why did the Persians land at Marathon rather than directly on the beach near
Athens? It was the best beach on which to make an unopposed landing, near
enough to Eretria, a location from which the army could march on Athens or
destroy Athenian villages and crops throughout Attica, and in the general area
where Hippias had the most local popular support and influence. It was
essential that the landing be unopposed, since they had to unload horses one at
a time from perhaps 100 specially designed vessels and the troops who were
about 30 each on 500 vessels - all stretched over 3 miles of beach.
- Strength - size of forces.
Athenians 8 - 10,000 hoplites and 600 Plataeans - The numbers of forces in
ancient battles are almost always exagerated. - . The Athenians wealthy enough
to buy their equipment were a minority of the male population. Delbruck
estimates that the total population of Athens at the time was 100,000. Each
hoplite had a 'shield bearer' - that is an assistant and general servant.
Therefore the numbers of slaves, servants, non-hoplite light infantry are not
mentioned but they must have been present. Thus the total Greek force at
Marathon could have been double the number sources give. or the actual number
of fully armed hoplites could have been half the 10,000. The non-hoplites may
have contributed as light infantry after the Persians were broken and were
attempting to board ships. And they would have assisted the hoplites in
carrying equipment in the race back to Athens.
Persians - possibly 15,000 - 20,000 infantry and possibly 800 - 1,000 cavalry -
likewise Persian non-combatants and sailors are not mentioned. The general
opinion is that the Persian fleet had 600 ships. Nelson, divides these into 100
ships each carrying 8 horses and 500 ships each carrying 30 infantry.
Significant Persian losses at Eretria plus troops to guard the Greek prisoners
captured there are generally overlooked by commentators today. There must have
been also a large number of Persian non-combatant camp workers. There must have
been over 100,000 sailors.
What time of day did the battle take place and for how long? - early morning
and over well before noon. Herodotus does indicate that the Athenians attacked
near dawn. And considering that the returned to Athens by nightfall they must
have started back by noon.
What aspects can we only guess about?
These include the five key issues that Professor Billows identified and
attempted to answer.
The events of the battle - which side initiated an attack, what were the
Persians and Athenians doing prior to the battle.
Possibly the Persians were already embarking part of their force with intention
to sail directly to Athens while keeping the Athenian army at Marathon.
Possibly the Persians were starting to march toward Athens with their main
force. The Athenians had been encamped at a key location able to block Persian
movement on either road toward Athens while also being protected by terrain
from Persian cavalry attack. The Athenians were marking time, possibly hoping
for Spartan reinforcements. Early in the morning, noting Persian preparations,
the Athenians deployed from their camp and confronted the Persians,
necessitating a battle.
What was the Athenian motive for launching an attack? - Several concepts are
given by various analysts. Of course if the Persians were either moving to
march on Athens or were moving to reembark with part of their force effectively
out of action, the Athenians would want to take advantage of a fleeting
opportunity. Some authors believe the Persians were moving to initiate battle,
but the most likely situation is that the Athenians launched the actual battle.
Why did Herodotus not mention participation of Persian cavalry although he had
mentioned their inclusion in the Persian force? Several ideas authors mention
include - the Persian cavalry was already embarked - the cavalry was grazing
well north of the battlefield - the cavalry did participate but to no effect
and quickly retreated. The last of these seems likely, why would the Persians
fail to use their most important arm? The rapid attack by heavily armed
infantry in a mass might have caused the Persian cavalry to retire quickly. But
then why is no mention also made of capture or death to Persian horses while
they were engaged in a lengthy effort to get them back on ships? Plutarch
specifically mentions that the Greeks captured prisoners and a large quantity
of valuable gold and other material - but does not mention horses.
How long did the actual battle last? I believe that the unarmored Persians
could not have stood for long in direct contact with the heavily armed Greeks,
especially on the flanks. In the center we presume the Greek line composed of
two units was only 4 deep (vice 8 for the 9 units on the flanks. Herodotus
states that the center of the Greek line 'broke'. But in my opinion that cannot
mean they were routed. Rather they may have fallen back while maintaining their
front against superior numbers of Persians, only some of whom carried shields.
If the Athenians only lost 192 killed out of the entire army during the entire
battle, the two central units cannot have been 'broken'. Once the Persian flank
units were retiring the central units must have started back as well. They were
then attacked on their flanks by the victorious Greek units, but they were not
surrounded. But the entire Persian army had several miles to cover before
reaching their ships, which were formed over several miles of beach. I rather
suspect that the majority of the casualties on both sides occured during the
final stages when the Persians were fighting a rear guard operation against
Greeks, while the rest were embarking. Nelson notes that both Datis and
Artaphernes escaped, so they could not have been toward the front of the
Persian center if it was surrounded. The Greeks captured only 7 out of a
theoretical 600 Persian ships despite strenuous efforts. With the Persian fleet
stretched out for 3 miles along the beach the Greeks would only have reached
the ships on one end of this long line. They could not simultaneously preserve
the tight hoplite battle formation and attempt to capture individual ships. The
Persian defense of the beachead must have been very effective, but it only
needed to block the Greeks at one end of the line of ships while the others
"When and how and why did the Persian ships sail around Attica to
Phaleron?" Professor Billows gives an imaginative answer that provides
also the answer to several issues. He believes the Persians embarked their
cavalry and a part of the infantry during the night and early morning. That
this was necessary for them (given ship movement timing) to meet the time frame
stated in the sources - namely that their fleet began to arrive at Phaleron the
same evening. And it accounts for both the absence of Persian cavalry in the
battle and the necessity for the Athenians to launch an attack.
"Why did cavalry not play a major part in the battle on the Persian
side?" For the reason given above. However, some commentators believe the
Persian cavalry did participate but was ineffective given the small numbers.
"How far did the Athenians actually run to go into battle and why?"
Professor Billows agrees with modern authors that a 'run' of a mile was
impossible. But most authors state it would be due to physical limitations,
that is exhaustion. He skips the elaborate empirical analysis Delbruck made
based on distances and notes that endurance was not the issue - simply it was
not necessary to 'run' a mile when 150 yards would do to avoid the effective
beaten zone of Persian archery. But he still believes 'run' when it seems to me
a 'trot' was all they could manage and still maintain a coherent tight
formation. Hanson believes it was standard Greek practice for both opposing
hoplite forces to 'run' at each other.
"When and why did the Athenians march rapidly back to Athens?"
Billows believes they must have started back well before noon in order to
arrive in time to block the Persian landing. This seems to be quite reasonable.
Having noted correctly that the Athenians in camp and preparing for battle had
servants, slaves and light infantry, he does not mention that they would have
been greatly assisted during that march back by their 'shield bearers' who
normally carried much of the heavy armament. One of the Athenian units from the
center - commanded by Aristides - remained on the battle field to collect
prisoners and start the burial process.
What do we need to reconstruct mostly
The course of the battle: for whatever reason the Persian army was located
toward the southern end of the field and near the main road from the beach to
Athens. The Greeks came down from their camp on the high ground early in the
morning and rapidly formed for battle. With 10 Athenian units and one Platean
they extended their battle line by deploying the two central units at a depth
of 4 ranks and maintained their 4 units on each flank (plus Plateans) at
standard depth of 8 ranks. Of course the 10 Athenian units could not have been
or exactly equal strength, but on average assume 1,000 each. This results in
the two central units at 250 men each frontage and each of the 8 flank units at
125 men each - for a frontage of 1500 men total, plus Plateans. The battle line
thus extended for at least 1500 yards. But there is no consensus on the
orientation of the two opposing forces - whether parallel to the beach or at
some significant angle to it. It is also not clear to what extent the 11
individual units tried to or were able to maintain direct contact with each
Now there is much discussion in the literature about Herodotus' statement that
the Greeks advanced at a 'run' for a mile. The general agreement is that this
is not possible for physical endurance reasons because armored soldiers could
not run so far. Several authors have decided that the 'run' would have been for
200 yards or so. But it is my contention that physical endurance is not the
issue. We know that it was essential for the Greek phalanx that each soldier be
close next to his neighbors to preserve a solid shield line. And we know that
the essential tactic was for the rear ranks to be immediately behind those in
front in order to push with their shields on the backs of front ranks, but
without tripping on each other. Now anyone who has watched a unit on line
marching forward can see that it is not possible to maintain a frontage of 1500
men, even unarmed, at a run over anything close to 100 yards, let alone 200.
This is so even if the 11 units advanced independently. Granted the Athenians
would want to close the distance as quickly as possible in order to reduce the
effectiveness of Persian archery and slingers. That only 192 Athenian hoplites
were killed is itself amazing and an indication that Persian archery could not
have been very effective. Even so, I estimate that the 'run' was actually a
double time trot, perhaps accelerated over the final 50 yards or less. Now I
find that Grundy specifically writes that the whole modern discussion and
confusing over this issue is based on a faulty translation of Herodotus' term.
The Greeks indeed advanced over the last few yards at a double-time, not
Herodotus states that the two weaker central Athenian units were driven back
while the four units on each flank rapidly drove forward. Some modern
commentators write that this means the two Athenian units 'broke' but I
disagree. When a Greek hoplite formation 'broke' it really broke and the
individuals would be fleeing, and difficult to reform. Hanson states that the
first act of a 'fleeing' hoplite was to discard his shield. Instead, I believe
that they were stopped, possibly pushed back while maintaining their cohesion
and then were able to move forward when the Persians retired. I believe
Herodotus was sold a line given him by descendents of the participants who
imagined a much more bloody battle than took place.
The nature of the battle itself -
Herodotus credits the Persians with heroic fighting and standing their ground
against the Athenian hoplites. (Again I think this typical Greek story line
comes from exageration, just as the numbers of Persians in all these wars is
exagerated.) They then, apparently, withdrew to their ships where another
hand-to-hand struggle took place. But it seems to me that, given the nature of
Greek heavy defensive armament and the impetus of the crash of the hoplite line
into unarmored troops so unusued to this type of combat, this initial struggle
cannot have lasted very long at the point of initial contact. The Persians must
have begun falling back, some continuing to fight, while those in the rear
retreated more rapidly. Then as the two Athenian flanking formations turned
inward the elite Persian center units had to withdraw as well. Then a renewed
battle took place around the ships. Herodotus notes, again, that the fighting
at the ships was fierce and that the Athenians were able to capture only 7
Persian ships - out of how many of the initial 600 were on the beach is not
noted. But a loss of 6,400 dead would have been the complement of 200 ships.
Also unexplained is how the horses, if they were present, could have been
loaded one at a time onto 100 ships during this battle. I presume that the
Persians made no attempt to re-board the same ship on which they had arrived,
nor even in the same numbers (30 per ship). But if Billows is correct that both
cavalry and some portion of the infantry was already on board ships enroute to
Athens then one might guess then the Persian loss of 6,400 was half or more of
the remaining force and that over half the remaining ships could have pulled
out without waiting for survivors.