New perspectives on the Battle of Marathon are beginning to challenge the accepted versions of events. Often, due to contradictory documentary evidence, details are still greatly contested. Military Times examines a selection of the most notable aspects surrounding the ancient battle, including Pheidippides’ long distance journey which gave rise to the athletics event still popular two-and-a-half millennia later.
There is uncertainty about the year of Marathon – 491 or 490 BC – and about the month – August, September, or October. Two ancient sources – Herodotus and Plutarch – appear to contradict. Modern commentators have been unable to resolve the matter. Some argue that the battle must have been in the summer since Datis and Artaphernes, the joint Persian commanders, would not have risked their fleet abroad in the period of autumn storms. Others argue that, since the Great Marsh featured in the battle, it must have been wet, and therefore the season late. The matter is unlikely ever to be settled.
The Persian army of invasion commanded by Datis and Artaphernes in 490 (or 491) BC is estimated to have been about 25,000 strong. Two separate arguments have been advanced that this army was divided when the battle took place. One suggestion is that the part of the army involved in the capture of Eretria had not yet reached the mainland. Another is that part of the army had already been embarked to sail around Cape Sounion to Phaleron for a direct assault on Athens. In each case, this division of the Persian army is offered as the reason for the Athenians’ decision to seek battle.
1. For the Persians to have deliberately divided their forces in the face of the enemy would have violated one of the basic principles of war (concentration of force) and exposed their army to grave danger.
2. The fact that the Persians accepted battle – instead of refusing it by remaining safely in their camp – implies great confidence in the strength of their army.
3. Herodotus, our principal contemporary source, says nothing about a divided Persian army, whereas he does report that the five generals who opposed giving battle did so ‘because they [the Greeks] were too few to engage such a host as that of the Medes’.
4. The stretching of the Greek line to prevent envelopment on the flanks is so central to Herodotus’ account of the battle that it seems reasonable to assume the Persian numerical advantage was very considerable.
One final comment concerns the cavalry. Those who argue for a divided Persian army usually assume that the bulk of the cavalry were absent. This seems especially obtuse. You need infantry to attack cities (whether Eretria or Athens), whereas the Plain of Marathon is excellent terrain for cavalry.
Some reconstructions of the battle have the Persians deployed with their backs to the sea facing a Greek advance approaching from the west.
This seems highly unlikely for a number of reasons:
1. The Persian ships would have been best protected if beached on the northern part of the bay in the lee of the Dog Tail promontory. This would place their camp close to the Great Marsh. Deploying in front of their camp, they would then face south across the Plain of Marathon.
2. The Greeks almost certainly reached Marathon by the direct road from Athens, and their camp would then have been on the southern edge of the plain close to the sea, looking north, not west, and thereby covering the approach to the city against a Persian advance.
3. It would have been very hazardous for the Persian commanders to have fought with their backs to the sea, and had they done so, their casualties are likely to have been very much higher than the approximately 25% losses they appear to have suffered.
4. A famous depiction of the battle in the Painted Stoa at Athens – still visible to visitors hundreds of years later – showed the Persians fleeing into the Great Marsh rather than the sea.
Estimates of the length of the battle range from half an hour to half a day. In fact, all the circumstantial evidence points towards a very short battle.
Herodotus’ account implies that the Greeks advanced rapidly and broke into a run when they reached bow-range. After collision, the actual fighting cannot have lasted long, since only 192 Athenians were killed, and most of these, it seems, fell in the final desperate fighting at the ships.
Had there been sustained close-quarters fighting before the Persian line broke, the Greek casualties would surely have been much higher, especially if, as some accounts have it, the centre was at one point completely broken.
Herodotus mentions a runner called Pheidippides (or Philippides in some manuscripts) who ran from Athens to Sparta to summon aid. He is said to have made the journey – approximately 250km – in less than two days: an impressive feat, but entirely possible for a good long-distance runner. Sparta reported that she would not march until the full-moon, which marked the end of the Karneia religious festival then being celebrated. Pheidippides returned to Athens with this news. (The Spartans arrived too late to join the battle, but were given a tour of the battle field by their proud hosts.)
There is no reliable ancient account for a separate run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of the victory – a distance of approximately 42km or 26 miles (measuring to the village of that name). This is one of the myths of Marathon: though a rather important one for sports history!