Sunday 2 May 2010

The Mountains look on Marathon

This August marks the anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, fought exactly 2,500 years ago on the plains of Attica. It was a victory for a small Athenian army over a Persian host, said by Herodotus to be carried to Greece in six hundred triremes. Plutarch and Puasania, later historians, were to estimate the number of Persians at 300,000, clearly a wild exaggeration. Even so, the victory was incredibly significant. For once I do think it possible to say that Marathon was indeed one of the decisive battles of world history.

Darius, emperor of the Persians, had been angered that the Athenians had given help to Ionian rebels on what is now the western coast of Turkey. Although the rebellion had been crushed he was still determined on a major reprisal against the Greeks. The size of the force he sent makes it clear that he was determined on something more systematic than a mere punitive raid, evidenced by attacks on both Naxos and Euboea.

No sooner had the Persians landed at Marathon, just twenty-five miles to the north of Athens, the city set about mustering all the soldiers that it could find, a mere 10,000 according to the ancient sources. A runner by the name of Pheidippides was sent south to ask for help from the Spartans, some one hundred and forty miles from Athens. But they were in the middle of one of their religious festivals, saying that it would be another ten days before their forces could be mustered. Pheidippides at once ran back with the news.

As always number can be a liability in battle as much as an advantage. The Persian host, as big as it was, could only bring a fraction of its power to bear, because the Greeks had blocked the narrow passes that lead south from the plain of Marathon to Athens. Seizing the initiative, and deciding to break the deadlock, Militiades, one of the two generals in command of a joint Athenian and Plataean force, decided to attack, surprising the Persians not just with the boldness of the move, but the ferocity of his citizen soldiers. Herodotus says that they ran into battle.

No sooner were the weak Persian flanks broken than the Greeks turned on the centre. In confusion the Persians broke, hurrying back to the ships, many drowning in the marshes adjacent to the coast. Once embarked what was left of the Persian host sailed south to Athens, only to find the Greeks ready for them in full battle array, the army having marched south from Marathon. Not willing to risk a second encounter the Persians sailed for home.

Marathon is still remembered today in the long-distance Olympic running event. This supposedly commemorates Pheidippides running to Athens with news of the victory, after which he promptly dropped dead! But the only running that he did according to Herodotus, the closest source we have to the battle, was to Sparta and back. It is not until three centuries later that the story of a single runner from Marathon was set down, and not until 180AD was the runner named by Lucian as Pheidippides, an event eventually commemorated by Robert Browning in a poem of the same name.

The words about Marathon that moves me most come from Byron’s The Isles of Greece, written shortly before the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821;

The mountains look on Marathon---
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might yet be free
For, standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.


  1. Bravo, bravo, bravo--once again. When all round us the lights of civilisation are being dampened and doused by the dark hands of tyranny, one must turn back to the Helens, and their many examples of victory in spite of all odds and all terror. The pages of Herodotus and Thucydides contain for me, the most profound wisdom ever committed to parchment.
    These are the tales of a peoples intelligent and independent, strong yet democratic, free but never feeble, a peoples who were never afraid to tempt fate, and never afraid to pay the highest price for beauty, wisdom, and the unbound rhetoric of justly righteous pride.

    The Greek spirit can never be crushed, it one whose ever burning fires make up for any lacking of geographical immensity, lest the apparent advantages of a tyrant's wealth.

    As I look to the Greek people on this very day, fighting heroically for their freedom against a foreign enemy, against the treachery of Her own leaders, I know in my heart the Greek people shall never be slaves. Like Byron before me, I shall do all in my power to see that this greatest of all great peoples, remain masters of their own fate...lest the fall of the Greeks brings all of civilisation into a new dark age.

  2. Thanks, Adam. Your comments are always appreciated. :-)