In 490 BC, King Darius led his Persian army in an attack on Greece which resulted in the Battle of Marathon. This assault was the Persians' second attempt at revenge on the Athenians and the Eretrians, Greeks who had previously backed the Ionian revolt against Persian rule. The first attempt, two years previous, was unsuccessful due to a storm which was believed to have been sent by the gods from Olympus to destroy the Persian fleet.
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As the Persian fleet sailed toward Greece in 490, they conquered several islands including Eretria. They arrived on Greek soil at Marathon Bay, 35 kilometers northeast of Athens. The Persians had a massive infantry and cavalry which included 48,000 men, outnumbering the Athenians 4:1.
Despite the fact that the Persians were the striking army, their fighting style was defensive. Their main weapon was the bow and arrow, and their key tactic was to wait until the enemy came close, at which time the Persians would "bury" them a heavy barrage of bows and arrows. The Athenians, on the other hand, had a more offensive doctrine. Their main weapon was the long, heavy spear, and they shielded themselves with heavy armament including helmets, shields, and breastplates. They favored close combat battle formations, lacking both cavalry and bows.
The Persian invasion at Marathon occurred on September 9, 490 BC. For eight days, the two armies stood confronting each other. On the ninth day, the Persians started an advance, forcing Miltiades, the commander in chief of the Athenian army, to deploy his army of 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans for battle. "When the Persians saw the Athenians coming down on them without cavalry or archers and scanty in numbers, they thought them as an army of madmen running toward their certain destruction," according to the historian Herodotus. The Athenians were able to surround the Persians, whose bows and short lances were no match for the strong spears of the Athenians. The previously invincible Persians turned their backs and fled as the Athenians chased them back to their ships. There took place the most critical battle, resulting in 192 Athenian casualties and 6,400 Persian deaths.
The Persians lost seven ships to the Athenians. However, Miltiades and his Athenian army realized that the Persian fleet could sail and attack the undefended city of Athens. He called upon Phidippides to run to Athens to bring the news of victory and a warning of the approaching Persian ships. Phidippides' 26-mile run from Marathon to Athens, the first marathon ever, was successfully completed in about three hours. Phidippides became a martyr, dying from exhaustion after fighting all day and completing the run. However, he successfully warned the Athenians, and when the Persian fleet arrived at Athens, Athenian soldiers were ready to protect their land. Upon seeing the prepared Athenian army, the Persians turned and sailed back to Persia in defeat.
Thus, the Battle of Marathon marked the end of a ten-year conflict between Greece and Persia. It distinguished the first time the Greeks had beaten the Persians on their own element, the land. It gave Greeks faith in their own destiny as a nation, and therefore this battle is considered one of the most important events marking the birth of European culture. Finally, Marathon was a battle in which morale triumphed over numbers, as the outnumbered Athenians defended their home and their heritage.