The Battle of Marathon: Book VI

In Book VI of Herodotus’s Histories, Herodotus claims that both the Hellenes and the Persians committed great acts of evil against one another -an unbiased claim in his inquiry. If the work was to be considered a work of propaganda to spur the Athenians to rise up (written during the Peloponnesian Wars) one might expect a defense, or apologia, of the Athenians. However, Herodotus seeks greatness in its many forms, barbarian or Greek, and often greatness and evil are closely intertwined.

As part of his inquiry, Herodotus weighs differing accounts, as well. He presents the many differing ways in which a story might be told, perhaps to lead the reader to doubt the rumors that emerge from multiple perspectives. Some accounts Herodotus finds agreeable, true, or correct, and others he presents in full form but dismisses as inaccurate to demonstrate the ease with which a reader might become swept up in a story without a healthy attitude of skepticism to guard them.

By modern standards, the battle of Marathon took place in 490 BC. It was the culmination of the Persian attempt to expand its empire across the world, continuing from the subduing of Egypt to the Hellenes, beginning with the Ionians. The Athenians, without the support of the Spartans, helped usher in a revolt in Ionia against the Persians, even setting fire to the city of Sardis. This was shortly after they had expelled the tyranny of Hippias, son of Peisistratos (the populist tyrnat), a tyrant of Athens who fled to Persia bent on gaining revenge against Athens. Once Darius had heard of this, he vowed not to forget the name of the Athenians, with whom he was entirely unfamiliar. He shot an arrow into the sky and spoke to Apollo, vowing to bring justice to Attica. He also commanded his most trusted servant to say the name of the “Athenians” to him three times per day to not forget. As the Persian army advanced through Ionia, they finally overcame the Eritreans, despite Athenian support, and turned their gaze to Attica. His two famous Lydian generals to carry out the task of wreaking vengeance on the Athenians for spurring the revolt of the Ionians were Datis and Artaphernes.

On the Athenian side, were ten generals, including the famous Miltiades -whose father was a four-time chariot race winner at the Olympia and who had escaped death twice to become a general in Athens. Together these ten generals, led by Miltiades, mobilized for the plain of Marathon where the Persians were sure to land after conquering the Eritreans. Their first course of action was to have Phidippides, the fastest messenger, to send word and call for aid to the Spartans. Phidippides ran for two days across 150 miles of land to Sparta and he succeeded in his mission by explaining to the Spartans that all of Hellas has become weaker by the loss of the Eritreans to enslavement. However, due to a law, the Spartans could not leave before the full moon. Therefore, Athens was alone without aid to fight the coming Persian forces.

Meanwhile, Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens, had a dream of sleeping with his mother, which he interpreted to mean he would regain his city of Athens and die there an old man. However, upon arrival at Marathon be was overcome by a coughing and sneezing fit that caused him to lose a tooth in the sand and he was unable to find it. He took this to mean the land would not belong to the Persians, “This land is not ours, and we shall not make it subject to us, either, for my tooth now holds all that was to be my share” (6.107).

Meanwhile, the Athenian generals are divided in how to proceed and whether or not to fight with so few numbers. Miltiades successfully persuades the polemarch, Kallimachos to fight the Medes (Persians) rather than face slavery. Therefore, the vote was 5-4 in favor of fighting -the democratic process was substantiated by the persuasive voice of one man, Miltiades. In a manner mimicking the cunning strategy of Odysseus who was credited with winning the war rather than Achilles, Miltiades makes a gamble by positioning fewer hoplite soldiers in the center of the ranks, leaving it more susceptible to Persian advances.

These Hellenes were the first to see the Persians and also the first to break into a run against the Persians -the Persians thought were “mad”. The Athenian (and Platean) wings were successful in the plan to encircle the Persians and they retreated while the Athenians chased them back to the waters edge and hijacked seven of the Persians ships. The Persian fleet picked up their Eritrean slaves and then made way for the city of Athens, while the Athenians made heavy speed to Athens and beat the Persian fleet there.

In all about 6,400 barbarians died and only 192 Athenians died.

The Spartans arrived late but went to the battlefield at Marathon to inspect the Persians before returning home. After the battle, Miltiades was given command of seventy ships to do with as he pleased, however he suffered setbacks in trying to conquer Paros and was tried by the Athenians. During the failed attempt he badly injured his leg and died of gangrene.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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