One day in early August of 490 B.C., the citizens of Athens received word that a massive Persian fleet had just landed some twenty-four miles to the north, along the coastal plains of Marathon. A mood of doom quickly spread. Every Athenian knew Persia’s intentions–to capture their city; destroy its young democracy and restore a former tyrant, Hippias, to the throne; and sell many of its citizens into slavery. Some eight years earlier, Athens had sent ships to support the Greek cities of Asia Minor in a rebellion against King Darius, ruler of the Persian Empire. The Athenians had sailed home after a few battles–they soon saw that this business was hopeless–but they had participated in burning down the city of Sardis, an unforgivable outrage, and Darius wanted revenge.
The Athenians’ predicament seemed desperate. The Persian army was enormous, some 80,000 men strong, transported by hundreds of ships; it had excellent cavalry and the best archers in the world. The Athenians, meanwhile, had only infantry, some 10,000 strong. They had sent a runner to Sparta urgently requesting reinforcements, but the Spartans were celebrating their moon festival and it was taboo to fight during such a time. They would send troops as soon as they could, within a week–but that would probably be too late. Meanwhile a group of Persian sympathizers within Athens–mostly from wealthy families–despised the democracy, looked forward to Hippias’s return, and were doing their best to sow dissension and betray the city from within. Not only would the Athenians have to fight the Persians alone, but they were divided into factions among themselves.
The leaders of democratic Athens gathered to discuss the alternatives, all of which seemed bad. The majority argued for concentrating the Athenian forces outside the city in a defensive cordon. There they could wait to fight the Persians on terrain they knew well. The Persian army, however, was large enough to surround the city by both land and sea, choking it off with a blockade. So one leader, Miltiades, made a very different proposal: to march the entire Athenian army immediately toward Marathon, to a place where the road to Athens passed through a narrow pass along the coast. That would leave Athens itself unprotected; in trying to block the Persian advance on land, it would open itself to an attack by sea. But Miltiades argued that occupying the pass was the only way to avoid being surrounded. He had fought the Persians in Asia Minor and was the Athenians’ most experienced soldier. The leaders voted for his plan.
And so a few days later, the 10,000 Athenian infantrymen began the march north, slaves carrying their heavy body armor, mules and donkeys transporting their food. When they reached the pass looking down on the plains of Marathon, their hearts sank: as far as the eye could see, the long strip of land was filled with tents, horses, and soldiers from all over the Persian Empire. Ships cluttered the coast.
For several days neither side moved. The Athenians had no choice but to hold their position; without cavalry and hopelessly outnumbered, how could they do battle at Marathon? If enough time went by, perhaps the Spartans would arrive as reinforcements. But what were the Persians waiting for?
Before dawn on August 12, some Greek scouts ostensibly working for the Persians slipped across to the Athenian side and reported startling news: under cover of darkness, the Persians had just sailed for the Bay of Phaleron outside Athens, taking most of their cavalry with them and leaving a holding force of some 15,000 soldiers in the plains of Marathon. They would take Athens from the sea, then march north, squeezing the Athenian army at Marathon between two larger forces.
Of the Athenian army’s eleven commanders, Miltiades alone seemed calm, even relieved: this was their opportunity. As the sun was getting ready to rise, he argued for an immediate attack on the Persians at Marathon. Some of the other commanders resisted this idea: the enemy still had more men, some cavalry, and plenty of archers. Better to wait for the Spartans, who would surely arrive soon. But Miltiades countered that the Persians had divided their forces. He had fought them before and knew that the Greek infantryman was superior in discipline and spirit. The Persians at Marathon now only slightly outnumbered the Greeks; they could fight them and win.
Meanwhile, even with a good wind, it would take the Persian ships ten to twelve hours to round the coast and arrive at the Bay of Phaleron. Then they would need more time to disembark the troops and horses. If the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon quickly, they would have just enough time to run back to Athens and defend the city the same day. If instead they opted to wait, the Spartans might never arrive; the Persians would surround them, and, more ominously, the Persian sympathizers within Athens would probably betray the city from within and open its walls to the barbarians. It was now or never. By a vote of six to five, the commanders decided to attack at dawn.
At six in the morning, the Athenians began their charge. A hail of arrows from the Persian archers rained down on them, but they closed in on the enemy so quickly that the battle now had to be fought handto-hand–and, as Miltiades had foreseen, in close combat the Athenians were superior. They pushed the Persians back into the marshes at the north end of the plain, where thousands drowned. The waters reddened with blood. By nine in the morning, the Athenians had control of the plains, having lost fewer than two hundred men.
Although emotionally spent by this battle, the Athenians now had only around seven hours to make the twenty-four miles back to Athens in time to stop the Persians. There was simply no time to rest; they ran, as fast their feet could take them, loaded down in their heavy armor, impelled by the thought of the imminent dangers facing their families and fellow citizens. By four in the afternoon, the fastest among them had straggled to a point overlooking the Bay of Phaleron. The rest soon followed. Within a matter of minutes after their arrival, the Persian fleet sailed into the bay to see a most unwelcome sight: thousands of Athenian soldiers, caked in dust and blood, standing shoulder to shoulder to fight the landing.
The Persians rode at anchor for a few hours, then headed out to sea, returning home. Athens was saved.