The Background (Herodotus, III–VI)
When Darius I took his place on the Persian throne in 522 BC, he held power over a vast and turbulent empire. His succession had not been a smooth one. The previous king, Cambyses, had already been succeeded by his own brother Bardiya, but within six months Darius had defeated him and taken the royal title for himself. Darius’ coup was just the beginning of an intensive three-year period, which he spent subduing rebellions and insurrections throughout his empire; from Armenia in the west, to Arachosia (near the modern Afghan-Pakistan border) in the east. During one campaign in Babylonia (October and December 522), Darius had to simultaneously respond to uprisings in Persia, Elam, Media, Assyria, Egypt, Parthia, Margiana, Sattagydia, and Scythia.
By 519 BC Darius’ position as the Great King was all but secure, so he looked to expand the borders of the empire he had inherited from Cambyses. To the east, Darius pushed beyond Afghanistan and into the Indus River valley (in modern Pakistan, and northern India), and created a new province called Hidush. To the southwest he moved beyond the now-stable region of Egypt and into Libya.
In 514/13 BC, Darius ventured northwest, beyond his lands in Asia Minor and into southeastern Europe. His army was heading for the vast plains of Scythia which lay across from the Danube and north of the Black Sea. Darius led a vast army across the Bosporus and marched through Thrace, while his adjacent fleet was sailing into the Black Sea and up the Danube to build a bridge for his army to later cross.
The Scythians implemented an ingenious strategy for dealing with the invaders. After they directed their families and flocks north, out of harm’s way, they sent an advance force to make contact with the Persians. Darius’ army was discovered three days in from the Danube, and the Scythian advance force began a scorched earth policy, all the while maintaining a slim one-day lead ahead of the Persian camp. This close proximity maintained the Persians’ interest in hunting down these horsemen, allowing the small Scythian force to lead the Persians further and further inland.
Once the Persians reached the desolate regions north of the Black Sea, Darius began to construct a network of forts. But the small Scythian force was not going to let him settle. One day, the Persians woke to find the Scythians had simply vanished, so Darius ordered his men to head back west, assuming that this was the direction the enemy had fled.
The race continued back through Scythia where the Persians finally caught sight of two small Scythian contingents, but Darius could not force a battle to occur. As the king’s frustrations grew, the Scythians changed tactic and began to harass the Persian cavalry whilst they foraged, but avoided an all-out attack in case the Persian infantry were too near. Meanwhile, the Scythians also sent a small contingent of their army to the Danube to encourage the Persian garrison in charge of the bridge to destroy it, so as to strand Darius’ army. The garrison was made up of Ionian Greeks from the westernmost point of the Persian Empire, and they agreed to do as they were asked until the Scythians left, when they continued to loyally guard the crossing.
Back in Darius’ camp, things were getting a lot worse. Provisions were running low, his men were under constant harassment, and he had just received an enigmatic gift sent from the Scythian king Idanthyrsus: a bird, a mouse, a frog and five arrows. Whilst Darius perceived this to be a version of the earth and water demands that signified submission to the Persian king, his adviser Gobryas took a different interpretation. For Gobryas the message was a threat: unless the Persians turned into birds and flew into the sky, or mice and ran underground, or frogs and moved into the lakes, they would be shot by these arrows.
The Scythians followed up on their threat and prepared for battle. But for the intervention of a small hare, a bloody battle may have commenced. When Darius saw part of the Scythian army leave their positions to hunt the small game he took it as a sign of contempt for his army, born from some knowledge of Scythian superiority, and decided to evacuate his men by night and head back to the Danube crossing.
The Scythians arrived at the bridge first and again put pressure on the Ionians to destroy it. The Ionians agreed and had to begin the process before the Scythians would leave, but once this happened the Greeks immediately stopped their dismantling. When Darius arrived at the crossing he was able to be transported across the river, with the help of the Ionians, and continue his march through Thrace and back into Asia Minor. He left one of his commanders, Megabazus, to subjugate southern Thrace, the Hellespont and, by 510 BC, Macedonia.
As the final decade of the sixth century arrived, Darius held a secure rule over the largest empire in the known world. He was able to draw an extraordinary amount of tax from the provinces, and he had an unparalleled army whose numbers could be called upon from dozens of different military cultures, bringing with them different tactical expertise and a wide array of arms that gave him a variety hitherto unseen in the historical record. The end of the century was not treating every one so well.
In 510 BC the city of Athens was in the grips of a sour tyranny. The tyrant Hippias had grown paranoid, following the assassination of his brother in 514 BC, and implemented a harsh regime over the polis. Athenian exiles implored the Spartans to intervene and, subsequently, bribed the Delphic oracle to support their mission, so that every Spartan consultation with the oracle led to the instruction ‘liberate Athens’. Sparta did not need much incentive to assert their influence in Athens and one of their kings, Cleomenes I, was sent to overthrow Hippias.
An initial landing on the plain of Phaleron, southwest of Athens, was unable to resist the superior fighting force of the Thessalian cavalry, allies of Hippias, who slaughtered many in the Spartan army and drove the rest back to their ships. Cleomenes assembled a larger expedition and marched overland, defeating the Thessalian force that awaited him. He continued his trajectory into the city of Athens, where he hemmed the tyrant’s forces inside an old Mycenaean fortress atop the Acropolis. After the capture of the children of the tyrant’s supporters, the siege was brought to a swift end. Hippias fled into exile on the Asian side of the Hellespont.
With the tyrant gone, the exiles of Athens returned and a new struggle for power raged. By 508 BC, Cleisthenes emerged victorious, with the support of the common people, and implemented the new form of democracy for which he became famous. His main rival for authority was a popular aristocrat named Isagoras, but this new democracy did little to deter Isagoras’ desire for power. In the face of defeat, Isagoras looked to Sparta for help, hoping they could repeat with Cleisthenes the exile they had enforced upon Hippias. Cleomenes jumped once more at the chance of influencing the governance of Athens. Using an ancestral pollution that besmirched the line of Cleisthenes, Cleomenes sent word to Athens that Cleisthenes should be cast from the city and that Athens was in need of cleansing.
While Cleisthenes did leave on his own accord in 507 BC, Cleomenes still entered Athens with a small army and began to undo the democratic reforms. He banished over 700 households from the city walls and put the power in the hands of 300 supporters of Isagoras. When the Council refused to obey the changes being implemented, Cleomenes and Isagoras’ supporters took control of the Acropolis. At the sight of their Acropolis in the hands of the Spartan king, the people of Athens rose up and placed him under siege. By the third day a truce was called and the Spartans were allowed to depart, but the supporters of Isagoras were detained and killed.
The people of Athens recalled Cleisthenes and the 700 households who were in exile, but Athens was still in a very precarious position. It had created a dangerous enemy in Cleomenes and the Spartans, and could not trust large elements of its own aristocracy who could so easily betray them. Athens needed to look outside for help and, in the face of the Spartan military might, only the strongest of allies would do. The Athenians sent an embassy across the Aegean to Sardis, to the palace of Artaphernes, a satrap for the Great King Darius.
The Athenians had a simple request: the support of the Great King, as they prepared to defend themselves from Spartan aggression. Artaphernes’ response was simpler still: offer earth and water as a sign of submission and the king would protect them as he would any of his vassals. The envoys agreed to the terms and left Sardis with the promise of Persian help.
For two years, Athens repelled the armies of Sparta’s allies, but they never received the promised help from Persia. They were able to defeat the joint armies of the Boeotians and Chalcidians, and later an invading force from Thebes. The situation was not going as Sparta had hoped, for Athens was proving a stronger adversary than had been previously anticipated. The Spartans decided to try and undo their earlier errors and reinstall Hippias as tyrant of Athens, but their allies refused to allow such an overt and radical interference in the governance of another polis.
With the stalling of Sparta’s plans, Hippias returned to Asia and continued his journey into the lands of Artaphernes, to garner the support of the influential satrap. Artaphernes ordered the Athenians to accept Hippias back as tyrant, something he felt capable of doing thanks to their offering of submission just two years earlier. The Athenians refused the demand and severely damaged their relations with Artaphernes and, by proxy, Darius.
In 500/499 BC Athens received one of the Persian-supported tyrants in Ionia, Aristagoras of Miletus. The tyrant had angered Artaphernes after a planned military action in Naxos led to an embarrassing failure for the Persians, one that they blamed on Aristagoras. With the distinct feeling that his time in power was coming to an end, Aristagoras decided to revolt. Having convinced several of the Ionian poleis to join him, the tyrant was in mainland Greece mustering more support. He had failed in his quest at Sparta and now turned to the other power base in Greece, the mother city of Miletus, Athens. Aristagoras used every trick available, including the telling of lies about the poor military equipment of the Persian armies, until the Athenians voted to support the revolt and send twenty ships to assist the Ionians.
The Ionian revolt began with a glorious success for the joint force of Ionians, Athenians and a contingent of Eretrian allies who had likewise joined to support the uprising. The army entered Lydia and took control of its capital, Sardis, driving Artaphernes and his garrison to the top of the acropolis to defend themselves. The Greeks set fire to the city, driving the Lydian citizens into the arms of the Persian garrison as they escaped the flames. The defenders fled to the agora and began a resilient defence out in the open. When the Greeks saw how their actions had unified their enemy they were reluctant to engage directly in battle, and when news came that Persian reinforcements would arrive imminently the Ionians left in the direction of Ephesus, back to their ships. The Persian relief force met the Greeks outside of Ephesus and defeated them in a fierce battle that ended in the slaughter of many Greeks.
This defeat saw the Athenians and Eretrians abandon the Ionian cause, less than one year after joining it. Regardless, 497 BC saw the revolt spread further afield, with cities on the Hellespont and in Caria joining the Milesians. Most importantly, in the eyes of Darius, the strategically important cities of Cyprus also joined the revolt. The island became the main focal point for the Persian reclamation and, after fierce Cypriot resistance, Darius’ army was able to reassert its control by 496 BC.
Further Persian victories on the mainland of Asia Minor turned the tide of the revolt decisively in their favour. In 494 BC, the Persians concentrated their attack on Miletus itself. Combining their various forces in Asia Minor together, they marched on the city, while their large naval force followed by sea. The Ionians decided to leave the Milesians to defend their walls while the rest would take to their ships and defend the city there. The Persians were victorious in the subsequent naval battle, the Battle of Lade, and Miletus fell that same year.
The following year, 493 BC, saw the final embers of the revolt put out in the Hellespont. It also saw the tyrant of the Chersonese region, an Athenian named Miltiades, flee his charge and return to his mother city. The Persian reconquest was at times brutal, with cities being burned, beautiful boys castrated and beautiful girls taken for the king, but Artaphernes finally brought peace to the Ionian Greeks through arbitration and the reestablishment of order.
Darius selected his son-in-law, Mardonius, to command the armies in Asia Minor in 492 BC, while the rest of the commanders in the region were recalled. Mardonius spent a short time in Ionia, deposing many of the tyrannies that were established in the cities and introducing democracies to govern. He then continued his march north, to the Hellespont, where he met with a large Persian army and fleet to continue the consolidation of Persian influence in the north Aegean. His army reached inner Macedonia and added Macedon to the formal satrapy of Thrace. Yet, after suffering heavy losses at sea and further losses on land, during an ambush from the one of the local Thracian tribes, Mardonius resolved Persian affairs in the region and returned to Asia.
Darius was beginning to prepare to extend control over the Greek Aegean islands and, in 491 BC, he sent out the demands for earth and water. This act stirred up a paranoid state within Greek diplomacy, and it did not take long before the citizens on the island of Aegina were accused by the Athenians of ‘medizing’, that is siding with the Persians. Athens made the accusation to Sparta, in search of assistance, and the Spartans sent Cleomenes to march on Aegina and arrest those guilty of the crime. After an unsuccessful first attempt, he was able to return and punish those most prominent in the decision to submit to Persia by sending them to Athens as hostages.
The year of 491 BC did not end well for Cleomenes, however. He was discovered to have orchestrated the removal of his co-king, Demaratus, and was forced to flee to Arcadia, where he attempted to unite the poleis against Sparta. He was swiftly brought back to Sparta, where he is said to have gone mad and killed himself. When the Aeginetans heard of his death they demanded the return of the hostages held by Athens, in the beginning of 490 BC, which the Spartans agreed to, but the Athenians were less willing.
When the authorities on Aegina heard of the Athenian refusal they arranged the ambush and seizure, during a sacred procession, of an Athenian ship which held many important and influential Athenian citizens. The Athenians, in turn, encouraged internal strife on the island, offering support to an exile, Nicodromos, but his insurrection was mercilessly put down by the authorities. The Athenians finally arrived at the island with a fleet of seventy ships and won a decisive sea battle, followed up with a victory on land as well.
While the Greeks were distracted with internal politics, Darius spent this time planning and executing his next area of expansion. Mardonius had been relieved of his overall command, and two new commanders were named, Datis and Artaphernes, the eponymous son of the satrap. In 490 BC, the two commanders met with their large army in Cilicia where they boarded a fleet of 600 ships, including some custom designed to carry horses. The fleet embarked for Rhodes, where they failed in their siege of the city of Lindos, before continuing on to Ionia. From the island of Samos this expedition was tasked with the goal of consolidating Persian control through the Cycladic Islands, starting with Naxos.
Naxos quickly succumbed to Persian authority, and Datis moved on to Apollo’s holy island of Delos. After offering generous supplication to the god, Datis received needed supplies from Ionia and continued travelling through the islands, most of whom had already offered earth and water to Darius. Datis was looking to enlist more recruits for the secondary aim of his expedition, to exact punishment on Eretria and Athens for their role in the Ionian revolt.
The Persian fleet headed for Eretria, on the southern coast of central Euboea, and put it under siege for six days, before the gates were betrayed by two Greek citizens. The Persians were ruthless as they plundered the city, set fire to the sanctuaries, and enslaved the populace. Datis hesitated once the city was taken, so the Persian army maintained its camp in Euboea. Datis most likely wanted to return to Asia, having achieved his main objectives, but one of his entourage had different plans. The old tyrant Hippias was putting pressure on the commander to continue on to Attica and attack Athens. But Datis did not have the manpower to take the city and the popularity of Hippias was undiscerned, making a betrayal similar to Eretria less likely.
Hippias finally convinced Datis that he knew of a perfect landing spot that would benefit the Persian horses, and nullify the Greeks’ strength in narrow terrain. He led them to a bay northeast of Athens, a bay which had seen his father invade Athens with great success almost sixty years earlier. He led them to the bay which lay before the small village of Marathon.