Though less famous than the Battle of Thermopylae, the Battle of Marathon must rank as one of the most famous examples of the underdog overcoming enormous odds and achieving victory. According to the traditional account, eleven thousand Greek and Plataeans defied odds of over two-to-one and overcame a Persian force of twenty-five thousand on the beaches of Marathon, ending the Persian threat to Greece for a decade. It must be considered one of the greatest military upsets in history.
Much nonsense has since been attached to the battle, some of it begun by its greatest chronicler, Herodotus. There is the argument that since they were fighting for their homes, Greek democracy and freedom, the Greeks had superior motivation to the Persians and so fought all the more harder. This myth reached its apex with the film 300, where dehumanised Persian soldiers are portrayed as being literally whipped into the Greek lines at Thermopylae. This is patently ridiculous: as J.F. Lazenby pointed out in The Defence of Greece, the Second World War saw British Indian troops fighting with incredible bravery and gallantry for a world order that decidedly did not guarantee them freedom and democracy. Furthermore, the myth that the Persian army was unmotivated is exactly that: Persian subjects had the right to practice their own customs and religions freely, and the myth that their morale was low owing to fighting far from home may be exploded by looking only at the fighting qualities of modern Western soldiers deployed on expeditionary operations today.
Legends about a handful of democratic Greek übermenschen effortlessly slaughtering thousands of Persian slaves aside, the odds were very much stacked against the Greeks at Marathon, which makes their victory all the more impressive. Though they were fighting on their own ground, on the plains of Marathon they possessed no particular terrain advantages, as the Spartans would later do at Thermopylae, and they were outnumbered by over two-to-one by an enemy with vastly superior organisation. The hoplites of Athens and Plataea were citizen soldiers, men who had the money to afford a shield, spear and helmet (and only occasionally armour), who donned their panoply only for war and rarely outside it. Only Sparta had anything that resembled a professional standing army. The rest of the Greek poleis saw such institutions as wasteful: if they were only good for fighting, why maintain them outside wartime?
The Persians, in contrast, had a long history of conquest and victory that had been made possible only by a superb system of military organisation. While it may surprise many in the West who imagine the Persian army to be little more than a charging horde, perhaps only the Roman legions compare in their attention to military detail. For one, the first Persian invasion of Greece was carried out entirely by sea: transported by the superb Persian royal navy, the army hopped across the islands of the Aegean Sea until it made landfall on mainland Greece at Marathon. This implies astonishing feats of organisation and logistics, for amphibious warfare is even today considered to be the most difficult form of military operation to plan and perform.
Drab discussions of grain transports and troop movement by ship lack the glamour of the battlefield, however. Here too the Persians had the advantage. Their army was divided and subdivided into units according to size, including ten thousand-man haviarabum, or divisions, formed from thousand-man hazarabam. These were in turn formed from hundred-man sataba, which were formed from the smallest unit, the ten-man dathaba. Only the post-Marian reform Roman legion perhaps compares in administration, and if the Roman legion is any indication, such subdivisions would allow for exceptional initiative and aggression at the lowest levels. Ironically enough, given our preconceptions of the Greco-Persian Wars, this arguably gave the Persian soldier greater independence on the battlefield than his Greek counterpart. The hoplite phalanx was a monolithic block of troops eight ranks deep that allowed for little initiative and was built around the sole purpose of attacking forwards and pushing with stabbing spears. It may have been accompanied by a smattering of poorer men equipped with javelins to serve as skirmishers, or even a few men rich enough to afford horses as cavalry, but Greek warfare at this time was fundamentally built around the uninspired push with the phalanx.
Yet it was this very simplicity that granted the Greeks victory at Marathon, for the Greeks and Persians represented two very different military systems. Despite the complexity of Persia’s military system and the scale of its conquests, Persian military organisation was built to enable primitive warfare writ large. This should not be taken as a pejorative, but merely a reflection of human nature, for as John Keegan has pointed out, warfare has been characterised by similar elements since the first battles of primitive tribes: “tentativeness, preference for fights at a distance, reliance on missiles and reluctance to close to arms length until victory looked assured.” Humans do not like getting into blade range of other humans, and the Persian way of war reflected that. Archery was the prized combat skill of their army, to the extent that Herodotus records Darius taking up a bow, not a sword, as he swears revenge on the Athenians for the Ionian Revolt. The standard tactic was for archers to rush to within bowshot of the enemy and shower him with arrows while shield-bearers – sparbara – protected them by forming a wall of large wicker shields, comparable to the Medieval pavise. These shields were lightweight and were capable of deflecting thrown javelins or arrows. We may imagine a long standoff as arrows were loosed, javelins were thrown and insults were exchanged, with perhaps the occasional brave, magnetic figure leading his dathaba on a brief, violent sortie into the enemy army. Only when the enemy had been disrupted and demoralised by clouds of arrows, however, would the Persian army as a whole charge home with short spears and swords. This would normally be enough to break the enemy and drive him from the battlefield.
The cavalry was also a hugely important component of Persian tactics, in particular its practise of horseback archery. In battle, repeated cavalry charges would shower the enemy with arrows and harass his flanks, slowly wearing down his morale. After the enemy broke, the cavalry would harry him as he fled the battlefield. A huge element of the Greek success at Marathon was down to the fact that the Persian cavalry had been embarked on the ships in preparation for a descent on Athens while the Athenian-Plataean army was fixed at Marathon.
The Greek way of war, in contrast, discarded nearly all aspects of primitive warfare and forged a new way of fighting that has, extremely controversially, been identified as the beginnings of a distinctive “Western way of war”. As described by Victor Davis Hanson and summarised by John Keegan, the nature of Greek agriculture meant that for an opponent to decisively defeat – to lay waste – to its enemy, the best time to fight was in the scant few weeks in May before the harvest when grain crops were standing and were dry enough to accept burning by a rapacious enemy. Furthermore, despite the pre-eminence given to the idea of the “city-state” in Ancient Greece, at least eighty percent of the polis’ citizens would have been farm-owners, not town-dwellers. To march off to war against a neighbouring polis would be to leave their own livelihoods vulnerable. Thus, the short few weeks that they had to fight and an unwillingness to leave their own homes undefended meant that the Greeks sought the decisive battle: disputes would now be settled in one single-day clash of incredible violence.
Assisting the development of this new military paradigm was the development of metallurgy that allowed for the cheap production of large numbers of bronze weapons and shields. Gone were the days of Homeric warfare, where the patriarch of his clan with his phratry behind him, the only one among them wealthy enough to afford advanced armour and weapons, sought out fellow aristocrats on the battlefield like the heroes of old. The phalanx formation, formed by the universal availability of the bronze-faced hoplon shield and the three-metre ash dory, was a uniquely democratic formation.
Over time, Greek combat became heavily ritualised. Despite the origins of their way of war, by the time of Marathon the Greeks do not seem to have pursued defeated phalanxes. Sacrifices and exhortations to the gods were of course made before battle, but the hoplite’s greatest motivation was probably more temporal than spiritual. For one, he was surrounded by his friends and brothers from his polis, and he could hardly afford to disgrace himself in front of them by succumbing to cowardice. Secondly, it is virtually certain that before battle the hoplites fortified themselves with copious quantities of wine. Thirdly, as with all warlike cultures, like the Persians contemporary to them and the Romans after them, the Greeks cannot have failed to recognise the importance of those rare magnetic figures who can encourage men to abandon self-preservation and follow them into the ranks of the enemy. For this reason, the front three ranks of the phalanx were composed entirely of veterans, and they tended to suffer the worst casualties when phalanxes collided.
Some of Hanson’s hoplite theses has been discredited in recent years. Preliminary skirmishing by peltasts was far more significant than he gives it credit for. The battle between phalanxes after the collision – the othismos, which literally translates as “shoving” – was not, as some public school scholars have suggested, clearly thinking of the rugby scrum, a literal pushing match of shield-on-shield until one side gave way. Adrian Goldsworthy has convincingly disproved this, arguing that the “shoving” is as much psychological as physical, referring to the impetus and encouragement from the ranks behind for the men at the front to take one more step forward to overcome the enemy. Doubtless there was shoving with the shield on an individual basis, and the greater mass and power behind the Greek shield may have been a significant factor in the Athenian victory at Marathon, but it was not a scrum. Nevertheless, the Greeks were clearly operating on a vastly different military paradigm to the Persians, who emphasised protracted combat at a distance. The Greek way of war, in contrast, emphasised the single decisive clash at close-quarters with the spear and shield. Just as Persian culture favoured the bow, Greek culture favoured the spear, with Homer regularly describing great victories as being “spear-won”. Even in their sports was the need for decisive victory emphasised: in the Ancient Olympic Games, there were no silver medals. All that was recognised was who had come first.
Thus were the two armies that assembled on the plain of Marathon; one a large force of light infantry and bowman; the other a small group of heavy infantrymen. If either could engage on its own terms, it would be victorious. The question was how to force a battle. The Athenians had swiftly moved to block the exits from the plain of Marathon and were content to hold off battle until the Spartans arrived. Their hand was forced, however, by the loading of the Persian cavalry back on to their ships, clearly in preparation for a move on Athens by sea. The Persian infantry, it seems, must have been advancing across the plain to prevent the Athenians from withdrawing back to Athens to make a defence of the city. The Athenian commander on the day was Miltiades, an experienced soldier who had seen the Persians fight before. He seems to have based his battle plan on two main elements: clearing the “beaten zone” between the two armies quickly so as to avoid casualties from arrows, and relying on the superior skill and protection of the hoplites in close-quarters combat to overcome the Persians. Nevertheless, he was still outnumbered, and even without the Persian cavalry, he was forced to thin out his lines in the centre to only four ranks deep to spread his flanks and prevent them from being turned.
To the stunned horror of the Persians, the Greeks did not march slowly towards them, but instead sprinted the final 150 metres into their lines, racing through the cloud of arrows and colliding with the enemy so quickly the Persian archers barely had time to put their bows away. It may be too much to imagine that the culture that provided the bedrock of Western civilisation was saved that day by a roaring, undisciplined drunken mob, but there is little else that can be said of it. The collision with of the armies must have been horrifying for the Persians: their unwieldy wicker shields would have been unable to resist the powerful thrust of a hoplite’s heavy ash, iron-tipped spear, and their own spears and swords were too short to get round the Greek shields. The Persians were swathed from head to toe in cloth and had little armour, while the Athenians’ shields were built to resist the blows of an opposing phalanx. The Greeks would have been able to thrust their spears again and again at helpless opponents before their weapons broke, and when they struck with their immensely tough, heavy shields, the Persians would have been overborne.
Nevertheless, the Greeks were still outnumbered. In the centre, their lines were bending alarmingly. As Herodotus writes:
“In the centre, where the Greeks were faced with the Persians themselves and the Sacae, they were beaten; the invaders got the better of the Greeks at this point, broke through their lines and pursued them inland. However the Athenians and the Plataeans on their respective wings were victorious. They left the Persians they had routed to flee from the battlefield and concentrated on those who had broken through the centre. The two wings combined into a single fighting unit – and the Athenians won.”
Dozens of writers seeking to add further glory to the victory at Marathon have interpreted this as an encirclement of the Persian army. The concentration on the centre and the two wings combining cannot help but create an image of the Persian centre being completely surrounded. Richard Billows’ account of the battle goes even further, suggesting that this encirclement was part of some master plan by Miltiades, and that he deliberately spread his lines and reinforced the flanks to encourage this double envelopment, giving such orders to his men. However, Herodotus’ text does not fully support this interpretation, and in any case the Greeks had neither the training nor the organisation at this time to carry out such a manoeuvre. If it was deliberate, then Herodotus would not write that the Persians “broke through their lines and pursued them inland”, as this gives the impression that this was undesirable for the Greeks. Nicholas Sekunda interprets the two wings combining as meaning that rather than encircling the Persians – for then Herodotus would not have wrote “they left the Persians they had routed to flee from the battlefield” – they instead spread to attack the flanks of “those who had broken through the centre” as they tried to retreat upon seeing the rout of the Persian flanks.
The Greek action at Marathon, therefore, is more likely to be a case of the Greeks turning around to deal with Persians that had broken through the centre after they had routed the flanks, than it is a Greek double envelopment of the Persian army. One may say that this diminishes the Greek achievement at Marathon. However, I do not believe it does. One does not need to invent stories of a democratic master race executing improbable manoeuvres to recognise the significance and heroism of Marathon: an outnumbered group of poorly-trained, inexperienced militiamen defeated the cream of a disciplined, well-organised army than had ground some of the fiercest tribes and greatest empires the world had yet seen beneath its boots. Such upsets are incredibly rare in military history; one might even call it unique. That alone is worthy of remembrance.
Richard A. Billows, Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization
Paul K. Davis, Masters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders from the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era
Tom Holland, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West
John Keegan, A History of Warfare
Nicholas Sekunda, Marathon 490 BC: The first Persian invasion of Greece