The battle was fought on the flat plain in the base of the bay of Marathon. To the west loomed the mountain range that encased the small village nestled within them, while to the east lay the bay and the Aegean sea beyond. The Persians were based in the north of the plain, next to the Macaria Spring, whilst the Greeks were encamped in the hills to the south, next to the sanctuary of Heracles. Behind the Persian battle lines was a marsh or an inlet from the sea.
The Persians, led by Datis and Artaphernes, had a fighting force of 16–20,000 men, with less than 1,000 cavalry. It was an infantry-based force with a large contingent of archers. The army was not a polyglot mix of ethnicities but predominantly Iranian and Scythian in make-up. This was not an invading army, it was a show of strength as part of a diplomatic assault – the threat that supported the demands for earth and water.
The Greeks were led by a committee of 10 generals, including Miltiades, the old tyrant of the Chersonese, and one commander, Callimachus. The Athenians were able to field 9–10,000 hoplites, and their only allies present were the Plataeans with another 600 hoplites. Whilst the Greeks had no cavalry present, they would have been supported by light infantry of an indeterminable number. Although the Athenians were not outnumbered by as large a factor as traditionally described, they were still facing anything upto twice as many men as they themselves had.
The Battle (Herodotus, VI.103–124; Plutarch, Life of Aristides, 5)
While Datis’ army had paused in Eretria he sent a messenger to Athens, offering them the chance to surrender, which was subsequently refused. Runners were immediately sent from Athens to all of the Greek states, looking for support, but only two returned in favour. Their erstwhile allies in Plataea said yes, as did the Spartans – in theory. The professional runner, Pheidippides, made the 150-mile journey in under 36 hours when he was informed that the Spartans would help Athens, but that they could not leave the city in force before the end of the Carnea festival, which had a further six days to go.
When the various reports returned to Athens another meeting was called to decide on what to do. Many argued for shutting the gates and defending the city walls; the campaign season would be coming to an end soon, meaning Athens only needed to hold out for a few months before the Persians left, due to the winter storms that could damage their fleet. But Miltiades put forward a motion that, as soon as they heard where the Persians had landed, the men of Athens would take their provisions and meet the invaders in the field, leaving the city in the hands of the gods. His motion was passed.
As the Persians arrived at Marathon and set up camp by the Macaria Spring, the knowledge of their arrival would have entered Athens in a very short period of time indeed. The men of Athens were called to muster and soon marched out of the city, taking the southern road into the plain, following the coast. On arrival they set up camp in the high ground, near to the sanctuary of Heracles, in turn securing a reliable source of water, and were soon joined by the small army sent from Plataea.
The Athenian generals were in a quandary. Half of them believed that they were too few in number to fight the Persians, and that they should put off an engagement until the arrival of the Spartans. But the other half felt that a battle needed to happen and soon, with concerns no doubt arising about how long Athens could be left relatively unguarded. Miltiades went to the overall commander, Callimachus, to cast the deciding vote, and successfully persuaded him to vote for battle.
Following this vote, the Athenians still refrained from entering the field. They could not simply march into the plain as sacrificial tender to the Persian arrows and horses, they needed a plan of action. The Persians, for their part, were content with the delay, as they had little desire to fight such a large Greek force. Datis was relying on internal strife striking the Athenians, either in camp or back in the city, allowing his army free access to its target. Each day the Persians would set up in battle order and then, when no battle was offered, they would begin to maraud the countryside. This pattern repeated itself for a few days, and Miltiades studied it closely.
The Persians would not begin to leave camp until daylight had come, with the infantry leading the way. Once their horses were fed, watered, bridled, saddled and ready for action, they were then taken through a narrow road between the spring and the mountain to its west, onto the plain, where they were the last to take up their position in the Persian formation. The act of marching past the spring took the cavalry almost an hour on their own, before they could arrange into the formation set out on the plain. Miltiades watched this again and again, waiting for his day to lead so that he could act.
Miltiades prepared the Greeks early on the morning of his command, and struck up the order for the lines to form. Callimachus took his rightful place on the right wing, whilst the ten tribes of Athens were counted and fell into place, with the Plataeans taking the left wing. The deployed line began the march into the plain.
As Miltiades’ army arrived, the Persian infantry had already begun to set up its lines, giving Miltiades the final piece of his tactical puzzle. Knowing that the Persian line was longer than his own, he had already arranged his army to accommodate this, thinning the centre of his army and extending his wings, whilst leaving them with a greater concentration of men as well. Seeing the Persian line as it arranged itself allowed the Greeks to match it to perfection, preventing any fear of being outflanked.
The Greeks stopped within a mile of the enemy and composed themselves. Sacrifices were given and the omens read favourably. It was now or never. The Persian lines were all but complete, but the horses were still nowhere to be seen: the command was given for the Greeks to advance.
Datis watched from the centre of the Persian lines in shock at the sight before him. The Greeks were not only coming to battle, they were coming at a run. Where were the Greek archers to cover their advance? Where were the Greek cavalry to support their flanks and protect against enemy horse? What madmen would break into a loose formation and charge down a larger enemy force head-on? But this was the sight that faced him.
As the Greek charge came closer and closer, Datis set out his orders. Miltiades may have feared his Persian horse, but Datis had a greater weapon in his army. The Persian front lines set up their giant shield walls, while Datis’ infamous archers nocked their arrows and waited. When the Greek charge brought them within one eighth of a mile of from the Persian line, the order was given and a cloud of arrows set loose.
An ominous shadow glided over the Greek hopliter as they ran. Undeterred, their advance never faltered and most of the Persian arrows fell harmlessly to the floor where the Greeks once were. While a few hoplites were struck, the charge did not lose its impetus. As the Greeks met the Persian line, the tall wicker-shield wall was ripped down and a brutal mêlée erupted, as the Persian archers replaced bow with axe, sword and spear.
The fighting was evenly matched for long periods of time. The weakness of the Greek centre could not hold for long. Its job was to hold for as long as it could, giving each wing the greatest chance of winning their contests. As the chaos grew, one giant Persian soldier, with a beard that covered much of his own shield, drove forwards and slaughtered the hoplite in front of him. The brutality of the death caused the next Greek hoplite in his path, Epizelus, to immediately shut down psychologically and lose his ability to see, but the Persian passed him by like a phantom in the night.
The elite Persian centre was pressing harder and harder into the Greek line, until it finally began to give way. Datis just needed to finish his job in the centre and then use his most elite fighters to flank the soon-to-be-isolated Greek wings, but the full report of the battle reached him as more of the Greeks began to flee in his path. The Persian wings had been defeated and Datis was in danger of being encircled.
The fighting on the wings had been likewise brutal, but the Greeks had been able to match the manpower of their Persian foes and forced them back. As the Persian lines began to break up they quickly turned to rout. This gave time for the exhausted Greeks to recover and regroup, resisting the urge to cut the enemy down as they ran.
Datis could not allow himself to get cut off from the ships. He ordered his men in the centre of the battlefield to turn back and head to the shore. As his men briskly moved into retreat, the gap between the two Greek wings had still failed to close, giving him a window of opportunity to fight his way out. When the Greeks saw Datis’ advance, both wings moved to attack the flanks, but they lacked the coordination and discipline to cut him off entirely.
By the time the two Greek wings converged, they were chasing the backs of the Persian soldiers toward the ships on the shore. The fastest of the Greeks were able to cut down some Persian stragglers, but it was not until the Persians attempted to board their boats that the Greeks reached them en masse and a new mêlée ensued. Many Persian bodies fell under the point of the Greek spear, others slipped in the wash and were mercilessly dispatched. But the Persians fought to the bitter end, with the spear-riddled body of Callimachus left as a morbid trophy to their desire to survive.
The Greeks tried to seize the boats before they were able to get out to sea, but one man at least lost his hand in the process, struck from his arm with the blow of an axe. For their troubles, the Greeks could only claim seven ships, as they watched the great fleet depart their shores and reflected on the hard-fought battle they had just survived.
One of the 10 tribes, led by Aristides, was left on the field to guard the captives and booty that had been claimed, and to watch over the Greek fallen. This amounted to 192 dead Athenian hoplites, but an unknown number of Plataeans and light infantry. They also had the grim task of stripping 6,400 Persian bodies of their armaments and valuables.
The Athenian army could not waste time revelling in their victory. The Persian ships had not left the bay and headed north, nor east, they had travelled decidedly south where they could traverse Cape Sounion and land right next to Athens itself, bypassing the Athenian army at Marathon.
The Persians had received a signal from the city inviting them to land, most likely at Phaleron. The Athenian army rushed home and arrived before the fleet. Their military presence was enough to dissuade the anchored Persian ships from attempting a landing, so, instead, Datis ordered his fleet back to Eretria. He collected his 780 captives from the city, men women and children, and took them to Ionia where they continued on foot to Susa to see the Great King. Only 400 male captives survived, and 10 women.
For the Persians, the mission had been a success. They had control over Naxos, they controlled the Cycladic islands, and they controlled an unobstructed sea route from Ionia directly to the Greek shore. The Persian Empire had been expanded, its holdings had been secured, and any plans to invade Greece in the future now had a safe and short passage to do so.
For the Athenians this victory was the start of their legend. Their dead were burned as heroes and a great mound constructed in their honour. It marked the beginning of the glorious golden age that Athens would become famous for, and cemented these men as the golden generation that would inspire future victories.