Armies & Commanders
- 8,000-10,000 men
- 20,000-60,000 men
Darius assigned command of the expedition to the Median admiral Datis and the son of the satrap of Sardis, Artaphernes. Sailing with orders to attack Eretria and Athens, the fleet succeeded in sacking and burning their first objective. Moving south, the Persians landed near Marathon, approximately 25 miles north of Athens. Responding to the impending crisis, Athens raised around 9,000 hoplites and dispatched them to Marathon where they blocked the exits from the nearby plain and prevented the enemy from moving inland. They were joined by 1,000 Plataeans and assistance was requested from Sparta. Encamping on the edge of the Plain of Marathon, the Greeks faced a Persian force numbering between 20-60,000.
For five days the armies squared off with little movement. For the Greeks, this inactivity was largely due to a fear of being attacked by the Persian cavalry as they crossed the plain. Finally, the Greek commander, Miltiades, elected to attack after receiving favorable omens.
Moving a brisk pace, possibly a run, the Greeks advanced across the plain towards the Persian camp. Surprised by the Greeks’ audacity, the Persians rushed to form their lines and inflict damage on the enemy with their archers and slingers. As the armies clashed, the thinner Greek center was quickly pushed back. The historian Herodotus reports that their retreat was disciplined and organized. Pursuing the Greek center, the Persians quickly found themselves flanked on both sides by Militiades’ strengthened wings which had routed their opposite numbers. Having caught the enemy in a double envelopment, the Greeks began to inflict heavy casualties on the lightly armored Persians. As panic spread in the Persian ranks, their lines began to break and they fled back to their ships. Pursuing the enemy, the Greeks were slowed by their heavy armor, but still managed to capture seven Persian ships.
Casualties for the Battle of Marathon are generally listed as 203 Greek dead and 6,400 for the Persians. As with most battles from this period, these numbers are suspect. Defeated, the Persians departed from the area and sailed south to attack Athens directly. Anticipating this, Militiades quickly returned the bulk of the army to the city. Seeing that the opportunity to strike the previously lightly-defended city had passed, the Persians withdrew back to Asia. The Battle of Marathon was the first major victory for the Greeks over the Persians and gave them confidence that they could be defeated. Ten years later the Persians returned and won a victory at Thermopylae before being defeated by the Greeks at Salamis.
The Battle of Marathon also gave rise to the legend that the Athenian herald Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens to announce the Greek victory before dropping dead. This legendary run is the basis for the modern track and field event. Herodotus contradicts this legend and states that Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta to seek aid before the battle. No matter which story is correct, a tale of heroic endeavour and sacrifice.