The Battle Of Marathon
I’ve decided to write some posts about great battles in history. Battles have interested me since I was a wee lad, I mean, talk about the ultimate organized sport! A few dozen guys beating each other senseless over an inflated pigskin simply doesn’t compare to tens of thousands of guys hacking each other to bits now, does it? And not only are battles interesting in their own right, they often contain valuable lessons and observations that help understand war and history in general. The Battle of Marathon is no exception, it illustrates both how organized warfare is, and how sometimes the advantage goes to the side that can think outside the lines.
The Battle of Marathon was fought in Greece in 490 BC, probably on September 12, it pitted the Greek forces, mostly Athenians, against an invading army of Persians. There’s a lot of background behind it, but it’s complicated and not relevant to the situation at hand. Simply put: A fleet had disembarked a Persian army on the shores of the plain of Marathon, a one mile wide seaside plain, some twenty odd miles from Athens itself. A Greek army arrived and camped in the hills next to the plain, and for six days the two armies faced each other, slowly growing closer as the Greeks carefully moved forward, using masses of stakes and spears to protect themselves from Persian cavalry.
On the sixth day, the Persian army apparently began to deploy for battle. (Now understand that records of this battle are extremely sketchy and unreliable, so much of what I relate here is “best guess” information.) The composition of the two armies is important. The Persian army was larger, possibly much larger than the Greek army, but consisted mostly of relatively lightly armed, poorly trained, conscripts. There were however several thousand professional Persian troops, including more than a thousand cavalry. The Greek army consisted almost entirely of professional soldiers. They were very well armed, trained, and experienced compared to their typical Persian counterpart.
The Greeks were however afraid of the Persian cavalry. There’s two reasons for this, the first being the obvious one, a guy on horseback has a big advantage fighting a guy on foot. Secondly, because the Greeks fought in a military formation called the phalanx. A phalanx was a group of men carefully organized in ranks with their shields and long spears facing forward, illustrated above. From the front a phalanx is an almost impenetrable mass of spears and shields, and for some hundreds of years the phalanx was the “ultimate weapon.” A few thousand Greeks in phalanx formation were able to hold off a vastly larger Persian army for days at the Battle of Thermopylae for example, only being defeated when the Persian were able to attack them from the rear. And that of course was the reason the soldiers in a phalanx were afraid of cavalry, cavalry could simply ride around the phalanx and attack it from behind.
So when the Persian army started preparing for battle, they knew it would take the opposing Greeks some hours to form their troops up into phalanxes, it takes time to organize thousands of guys into carefully arranged ranks. So for some reason, the Persian cavalry was not at hand at this point. Best guess is that they had ridden to some water an hour away to water their horses, there being no water on the plains. Thinking of course they had time to go water their horses and get back to the battle before the Greeks were organized and ready to fight.
Well, somehow Miltiades, the Greek commander, realized that the Persian army in front of him was missing its cavalry. And there’s where the thinking outside the lines comes in. Miltiades knew that man for man the Greeks were much better trained and armed than the Persian army facing him, and without their cavalry, the Persians would have little chance against them. So instead of ordering his men to form up into phalanxes, he basically just had them grab their weapons and armour and deployed them in crude quick ranks facing the Persians. Then he ordered them to charge. So with no warning whatsoever, as many as ten thousand Greek soldiers emerged from the forest and ran across the plain of Marathon toward the Persian army. It took about six minutes to cover the distance.
Um, to put it mildly, the Persians were rather surprised. Especially since for the first few minutes they probably were wondering what the hell the Greeks were up to. Then the Greeks slammed into the Persian lines, and the battle was on. The Greeks had a huge advantage, and even beyond that, Miltiades outfoxed the Persians further by having the centre of the Greek army retreat after initially making contact, thus drawing the Persian army even further forward. Meanwhile the Greeks on the flanks continued to advance easily, and very quickly the Persians realized they were surrounded on three sides. At that point the Persian army panicked and ran, and the battle was over.
Many of the Persians reached their ships and sailed away, some escaped to the sides and were hunted down or drowned in swamps. The Greeks had carefully left the Persians routes to retreat into, it’s always better if your enemies run away. (Troops that can’t run away will often fight to the last man, and more than one battle has been lost because a defeated army couldn’t run away and fought ferociously when they realized their lives depended on it.) More than six thousand Persians were killed. Greek dead numbered about two hundred! By all accounts it was a stunning victory, and achieved legendary status almost immediately. Even the Spartan army, who much to their annoyance arrived a day too late to join the fighting, grudgingly conceded the Athenians had won a great victory after carefully inspecting the battle site. The Greek dead were afforded the honour of being buried on the field of battle, instead of in their home cities which was the usual custom.
Strategically the battle was of little importance, but like the Alamo, it was a tremendous source of inspiration. It was the first major defeat the Persians had suffered on land at the hands of the Greeks, and it caused them problems for years as client states inspired by Marathon revolted against their Persian overlords. And yes, the marathon run did indeed result from this battle, a Greek soldier ran 26 miles to Athens to tell of the great victory. The best guess is that his name was Phiedippides and that he ran the whole distance non-stop, collapsing and dying after giving his news.
For me, the best part is imagining that six minutes that transpired when the Greeks emerged from the woods and ran across the plain. They must have been incredibly pumped, they knew what they were doing was nuts, but once they were out of the trees and on the move it was do or die. And the poor Persians. In the space of just a few minutes they went from chatting about their far away wives and families, to wondering what those crazy Greeks were up to, to “OH SHIT!”
(The above image of a phalanx is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. Credit: P. Connolly, The Greek armies, 1978)