From Marathon to Thermopylae Expurgating Persian War Myths (490–480 BC) I

The report that Sardis had been captured and burned by the Athenians and the Ionians was brought to Darius and that Aristagoras of Miletus had instigated that joint action. It is said that when Darius heard of his affair … he asked who the Athenians were. When he was he told he called for his bow. He took it and loosed an arrow into the sky saying ‘Gods grant that I shall be allowed to punish the Athenians.’ He then ordered one of his slaves to repeat the following words three times every time he dined: ‘Master, do not forget the Athenians!’

(Herodt. 5.105)

The story is amusing but fanciful, appealing to the audience perhaps but not that convincing when searching for authenticity. Darius had campaigned in Thrace and further north, had in his court many of Greek origin and was close to Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens who when expelled in 510, had gone into exile at Sigeum on the Persian side of the Hellespont. Darius needed no reminding about the Athenians and the fact that he appointed Mardonius as the new satrap for Hellespontine Phrygia and Thrace, with instructions to take the Persian presence into Greece just months after the Ionian Revolt had been quelled plainly indicates that a general subjugation of the Greek mainland including Athens had been contemplated for a long time. The battles at Marathon and Thermopylae, ten years apart, but between the same foes, certainly remain the two most easily recalled military engagements of ancient Greece, if not in all antiquity. Yet there is much less modern attention on the battlefields themselves and the historical contexts of each episode, which usually draw just a few sentences in a general coverage of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians. The campaigns that led to battles at Marathon in the summer of 490 and at Thermopylae in early August 480 have become famous partly because the expansion of Persian Empire in a westward direction was thwarted, although its resources were much greater than those available to the Greek cities, and partly because of the stature of the main source material, which again hinges on Herodotus’ Histories. Notwithstanding the fame of the work in question, its seemingly inchoate narrative regarding these battles, provided by history’s first historian, poses numerous puzzles, which for any sense to prevail about them require some critical analysis. Although there is a decade between Marathon and Thermopylae the campaign that led to the latter began almost immediately after the Persian defeat in 490 and continued down through 487 when dealing with a revolt in Egypt took precedence (Herodt. 7.1).

Darius had every intention of enlarging his provinces on the European side of the Hellespont, but the defeat at Marathon, although no catastrophe, upset his plans and before he could regain the initiative in that quarter he died in 486. It was only in 485 after the Egyptian rebellion was quelled that an invasion of southern Greece again became a primary objective of the Persians and their new king Xerxes. He wanted to redress the failure of 490, which implicitly was an affront to the dignity of his kingdom and although he massacred the Greek defenders of Thermopylae this proved to be just another minor victory in an overall campaign that became a Persian debacle. Yet Marathon and Thermopylae far more than Salamis and Plataea dominate the popular imagination, and so the focus here will be to trace the two battlefields to place events at them in a realistic and historical context. The reason for concentrating on just two battles and not the entire war is firstly that geographically they are very close, secondly that both although land battles were heavily influenced by events on sea, and thirdly both involved one or both forces of small size. These were not the great displays of manpower and military might expected of the pitched battle.

Within months of peaceful conditions being restored along the coastal fringe of western Asia Minor, Darius ordered his new satrap Mardonius to continue the work begun by Megabazus and proceed to campaign further along the northern Aegean coast with a view to subduing the entire mainland of Greece (Herodt. 6.44). Before Mardonius crossed the Hellespont he visited the cities of Ionia and Herodotus notes a most unexpected gesture on the part of this new satrap in that he installed democratic governments in the cities that had recently been reconquered. Tyranny of the kind previously favoured by the Persians in these parts was no longer to be permitted. Bearing in mind that this course of action is precisely what Hecataeus urged Artaphernes, the Lydian satrap, to do, according to Diodorus (10.25.4), it ought not to have come as such a surprise. Furthermore, while Herodotus noted that some former leaders had been restored to their cities along the Hellespont he makes no mention of any in Ionia, which suggests that the Persians recognized that the imposition of governing through single rulers simply did not have popular support. Mardonius’ decree was not entirely motivated from a desire to please the local populations, however, for he knew that in the campaign he planned to wage he would need financial and material support from these cities. Therefore to avoid further civil unrest it was of a little substance to him whether the people ruled themselves or were ruled by tyrants just as long as they were compliant to his wishes and needs. Herodotus presents it as an amazing event, but it was actually simply a matter of sensible politics and part of the planning of the logistics for a new venture in Europe.

In the early summer of 492 Mardonius moved quickly by transporting his army, which Herodotus states was impressive, from Abydos to Sestos, the narrowest point on the Hellespont. From there a Persian army marching overland had little hostility to be concerned about since Megabazus had already imposed Persian rule from the western shore of the Propontis to the Chersonese, and then in Thrace as far as the River Strymon. Therefore, it must have been clear to all that Mardonius’ objective can only have been Greece and since the Macedonian king had already made a treaty with Darius the way through to Thessaly lay open. However, things did not go according to plan. At first there was a successful occupation of Thasos, which was taken without opposition, but then the fleet that had accompanied the army was caught in a gale off Mount Athos in the Chersonese. The northern or etesian winds of the summer months can be violent and were especially dangerous to ancient shipping. On this occasion Herodotus records that it was said that three hundred ships were sunk and as many as twenty thousand men from their crews were killed, some because they could not swim, others became the victims of shark attacks, and others were caught on the rocks (Herodt. 6.44). The army too suddenly encountered a setback when the Thracian tribe the Brygi made a surprise assault by night. The Persians seem to have been taken completely unawares and Mardonius himself was injured. The general, however, refused to advance further until he had punished this tribe but the result seems to have been that the campaigning season drew to a close without any further positive results and Mardonius led his army back to the Hellespont. Herodotus states that Mardonius’ army hardly behaved in a glorious fashion (Herodt. 6.45), although fault for the disaster to the fleet could hardly have been on account of incompetence of the commander. Later Herodotus (Herodt. 6.94) confirms that Darius had relieved Mardonius of the command against the Greeks.

In the winter of the same year Darius ordered the citizens of Thasos to demolish the fortifications to their city and send their ships to Abdera (Herodt. 6.46). The Thasians had been besieged by Histiaeus some years before, but being a wealthy polis which, says Herodotus had an annual income from its Thracian gold mines of between two and three hundred talents a year, the citizens had responded to external threats by expanding their navy and strengthening their city’s walls. In 492/1, however, they recognized the futility of a war with the Persians who had occupied much of Thrace and all neighbouring islands and so obeyed the commands of the dominant power in the region. Darius also wanted to test sentiment in Greece not because Mardonius had accomplished little of note in the previous year but to avoid further losses to the Persian treasury. Darius is well remembered as being a prudent ruler, and evidently decided to try diplomatic means to obtain his goal, however at the same time, ever the realist, he gave orders for the preparation of a further military campaign and demanded that the cities of western Asia Minor have warships and transport vessels in readiness. Meanwhile, heralds were sent to the islands of the Aegean and to all the cities on the Greek mainland demanding fire and water from each of these communities as a sign of their submission. The island communities were quick to comply since most if not all of them were within hours of Persian held territory. One of the islands to offer submission to Darius was Aegina (Herodt. 6.49) situated in the Bay of Salamis and within sight of Athens itself. The Athenians appealed to Sparta to intervene in what they considered to be a hostile action by the Aeginetans who were members of the Peloponnesian League under the leadership of the Spartans.

The Spartan king, the same Cleomenes who had rejected the appeals of Aristagoras of Miletus for military aid, arrived in Aegina soon after and took hostages who were then despatched to Athens for safe keeping. This was to ensure that the Aeginetans went no further in their attempts to curry favour with Persia. The Persians would have had cause to regret not being in a position to intervene in Aegina’s internal affairs since that city had a strong fleet and its harbour would have made a useful base in the event of a Darius launching an attack on Attica and the Peloponnese. But the Spartans were not the immediate target since they had not fought alongside the Ionians like the Athenians and Eretrians, and so this opportunity to gain a foothold in southern Greece was lost, irrevocably as it turned out. Evidently, an attack against at least one ally of Sparta, however loosened the bond between the Athenians and Spartans had become since the expulsion of Hippias in 510, was also regarded as a threat to the Peloponnese. The Spartans recognized that threat and acted at once. The citizens of Aegina may have considered the Spartan king’s action high-handed and may have begun planning a retaliation but the hostage-taking had the required effect and nothing more is heard about Aegina for the next five or six years. The Peloponnese and Attica seemed united against any involvement with Persia, although elsewhere medizing as it became known was common enough.

In the meantime, in the early summer of 490 Darius ordered the rendezvous of a new army and fleet in Cilicia, near Tarsus. The land forces consisted of infantry and a large contingent of cavalry and the army was reviewed on the Plain of Aleia by the joint commanders Datis and Artaphernes, son of the Artaphernes who had been the previous satrap of Lydia. The appointment of two or more generals to a command was plainly a common enough practice among the Persians and had been employed effectively in the war in Ionia, but in this instance was also probably a conscious decision in reaction to the recent failure of Mardonius who had been granted sole command in Thrace. From there the army sailed to Samos. Herodotus describes this force as a powerful one but just how large was it? A fleet consisting of six hundred triremes (Herodt. 6.95) would require 102,000 rowers, some of whom could have been utilized as light armed troops in the field, plus a further 18,000 heavy infantry, thirty carried by each warship. Still this total of 120,000 appears to be unrealistically high and problematic in logistical terms especially supplies. A fleet of this size would have required almost as many transport ships carrying food and fodder since local communities compelled to provide material aid would have simply buckled under the strain. A fleet of 1200 in 490 is not credible nor can the Ionians and the islanders of the Aegean had delivered sufficient supplies. Another reading of the text is therefore required. Herodotus must be using the name ‘trireme’ in a loose or careless fashion forgetting that whereas by his day, this was ubiquitous ‘ship’ employed for all purposes, that was not the case in the campaign to Marathon. In 490 the trireme was still a relatively novel construction and since the historian refers to transport ships for the horses (‘horse-carrying ships’) these were almost certainly not warships. A cavalry force of as little as one thousand would have required about forty triremes, and double that number of smaller vessels, especially if there was more than one horse for each trooper. It means that of the six hundred in total, perhaps one hundred or more were smaller transport ships. Moreover, some of the warships were undoubtedly of the older bireme or pentekonter construction. Altogether a fleet comprising a mixture of shipping would reduce the total to perhaps 80,000 rowers, 10,000 infantry and 2000 cavalry. The force was certainly powerful but this was not intended for a full invasion of mainland Greece but as a punitive expedition against Athens and Eretria to cause havoc before a still more powerful force could be sent to enforce Persian rule over the broader region. Herodotus has perhaps inadvertently inflated the size and power of the Persian force, which can be corrected here but for his audience it would have sounded much more impressive than it actually was if they thought in terms of contemporary triremes. The fleet probably called at Miletus before making the short crossing to Samos, but instead of heading north towards the Hellespont and the usual crossing points between the two continents sailed out in a south-westerly direction across the Icarian Sea. Herodotus affirms that this route had been chosen since the Persians were still shaken by their severe losses around Mount Athos in the previous summer and had decided to avoid that route altogether. The transportation of an army, especially one with cavalry units across the open sea, even keeping close to the islands was yet another innovation by the Persian generals, and perhaps of Darius himself.

The ‘Marathon Campaign’ began almost as a carbon copy of the Naxos expedition, and indeed Naxos was one of the first objectives since the fleet sailed west from Samos. The Naxians will surely have been alerted to this imminent threat yet unlike their spirited defence against the Persian attack, led by Megabates and Aristagoras, they offered no defence at all. The size of this latest expedition may have been just too intimidating for the Naxians who apparently abandoned their city and fled into the hills. The Persians plundered and burned the city and the temples and continued on their way. The episode must have occurred over a matter of days and is given little coverage by Herodotus, although there is perhaps more here than the narrative yields to the reader. The Naxians had been confident of withstanding an attack a decade before but in 490 made no attempt to do so. This can be attributed to a number of reasons, that the attack came early in the summer before the harvest was gathered and when food supplies were at their lowest after the winter so that there were simply insufficient supplies to see out a blockade or that there had been a change in the political leadership at Naxos, which was less opposed to an entente with the Persians. Herodotus (6.49) claimed that all the islands had offered fire and water to Darius, so the attack may have been unexpected and unprovoked. Finally, the example of the fate of some of the Ionian cities was still fresh enough to make a defence the island seem a worthless proposition.

Datis also occupied the island of Delos, although the population fled before the Persians arrived. On account of the cult to Apollo and Artemis, which was also held in esteem by the Persians, the island was not plundered and its people were invited to return. The Persian fleet then had a short distance to cover before they landed on the southernmost point of Euboea at Carystus. Datis had already enforced the submission of all the islands he had visited and collected troops and hostages from each. He now demanded from the citizens of Carystus that they also join the war against their neighbours but, even in the face of what must have appeared overwhelming odds, they refused. A siege commenced and the land around the city was devastated and the people of Carystus surrendered to the Persians and the city was spared destruction. The Eretrians will have had some days’ warning that they were about to be attacked but will surely have heard reports of the Persian expedition from well before the attack on Carystus. They sent messengers to Athens requesting aid and the Athenians responded immediately by sending a force of four thousand who, according to Herodotus, were from families that had been settled on lands belonging to Chalcis some years before. Such a prompt and positive reaction was not copied by any similar action by the Eretrians who were divided in how they should meet the Persian threat. One group wanted to flee from the city and make for the safety of the surrounding hills – which they probably did – another group with their sights set on future personal gain was conspiring to turn the city over to the enemy without a fight. An Eretrian citizen named Aeschines was alerted to this treachery and he informed the Athenians who at once withdrew and crossed the straits to Oropus just in time to escape the disaster that followed.

The Persian fleet made land at a number of beaches close to Eretria (Herodt. 5.100) and they prepared to make an assault on the city, which remained well defended since many of the citizens had chosen to remain but were not confident enough to offer battle outside their fortifications. The Persians appear to have attacked the city but there is no mention of any specialist siege equipment and it is likely that they concentrated on undermining a section of the circuit walls. The fight went on for six days with heavy casualties but with no obvious conclusion in sight until certain Eretrians who were pro-Persian opened a postern gate or successfully connived to leave a section of the walls unguarded. The Persians sent troops in and opposition seems to have completely collapsed as the sack of the city began. The traitors are named by Herodotus (Herodt. 5.101) as Euphorbus and Philagrus who were no doubt well rewarded, but may not have been allowed to remain in Eretria but rather resettled elsewhere. Xenophon in his Anabasis (8.7), written after 400 BC, which describes the events of a rebellion and its aftermath against the Persian king Artaxerxes II by his brother Cyrus in which the writer participated as a mercenary, mentions a meeting between himself and descendents of a certain Gongylus of Eretria. Gongylus had participated in the betrayal of Eretria in 490 for which he had been granted lands in Mysia. His widow who was named Hellas still lived in one of these possessions in the Caicus Valley, which later became the city of Pergamum.

Eretria was neither a major settlement nor especially well defendable, although it possesses an impressive acropolis on a steep hill above its theatre. The population was probably hardly more than twenty thousand so its seizure by the Persians was predictable. Those who were caught were taken as prisoners to Asia Minor and resettled. The temple of Athena Daphnephorus was burned and plundered by the attackers in revenge for the destruction of the burning of the temple at Sardis. Datis was certainly carrying out instructions but it might have been wiser to have been more generous in his treatment of the city. In fact, the severity of the punishment meted out to the Eretrians may, like that to the Milesians, have been exaggerated by the Greek writers of history. Like Miletus, Eretria quickly recovered, its citizens, many of whom must have fled to safe havens elsewhere on Euboea, returned and rebuilt their city, although the temple of Athena appears to have been a long time in restoration. Just ten years later, in the allied Greek fleet that saved the mainland from Persian domination, the Eretrians provided the same number of warships as they had sent to aid the Ionians in 499. This is a clear indication of the dramatization of the episode in Herodotus and as it was received in the later literature.

After a few days the Persians re-embarked their troops and sailed for Attica, but there was absolutely no chance of catching the Athenians unprepared since the events at Eretria will have been keenly observed from Oropus. The Persian fleet was probably shadowed by scouts as it made its way down from Eretria, past Rhamnous and into the Bay of Marathon, where an army of almost entirely Athenian citizens was encamped and waiting. The plain at Marathon stretches for at least five kilometres (2 miles) in length between two steeply sided headlands, especially that of the Mount Pentelicon range to the southern edge. The depth of the plain is roughly two kilometres (2000 yards) from the hills that give access into central Attica from the sea. The landscape including the sea level has not altered much from the time of the battle. The tumulus in honour of the dead Athenians is as prominent today as it would have been in 490 and will have be clearly visible to travellers passing by land or by ship. Obviously today the landscape has been altered by modern developments in housing and farming but the general nature of the battlefield remains the same. The land usage in 490 probably consisted of small subsistence farms with scattered bush and trees but which was easily level enough for the effective deployment of the cavalry that had been so carefully transported from Asia.

The forces assembled by the Athenians seem hardly to have made for a strong opposition or made a protracted campaign likely. An army of roughly ten thousand drawn from each of the tribes of Attica marched out from Athens to meet the attackers, which as a force is just two thousand more than the Naxians, who had seen off the Persian attack just over a decade earlier, but who had recently surrendered without a fight. The enemy must certainly have had an overall numerical superiority especially in cavalry units, although that military arm constituted a problem in itself since the nature of the land in Attica was mostly unsuitable for large cavalry deployment. The northern and western quarters of Attica and hence the route for any force whose objective is Athens itself is particularly hilly with narrow valleys and steep sides gorges. This means that the Persians were extremely limited in the places they could effectively operate out from. Marathon on the western coast of Attica and Phaleron just to the southwest of Athens had the available space for making the superiority of the cavalry count and had the space for beaching the fleet. Otherwise, the use of cavalry could easily become a handicap and a structural weakness for any attacking army. And this is clearly what actually happened. The Persians were guided to Marathon by Hippias who knew the area well and at least was able to give some specialist advice but he must also have had qualms about the ultimate success of the venture. If he did not voice this concern it may only have been to ensure that any negative remarks were not held against him later on. Hippias like the Persian commanders knew that unless they controlled the battlefield the enemy would start with a major advantage and quite simply they allowed the Greeks with a smaller force mostly of infantry to start hostilities from higher ground while their cavalry does not appear to have been fully disembarked or brought into action.

One can also easily discern the extent to which the Marathon campaign became as much myth as history when the tale of the courier Pheidippides is encountered in the narrative. The Athenians had received reinforcements from just one of their allies, namely Plataea on the southern edge of Boeotia, a small community that probably sent most of its available manpower. The Plataean contingent numbered approximately a thousand and was to be stationed on the left wing on the northern side of the plain. The Athenian generals were also counting on the support of Sparta. If the Spartans sent troops the other cities in the Peloponnese that looked to Sparta for leadership would follow. Herodotus states that before the Athenian army had fully mustered in the city and therefore perhaps as much as a week before the battle Pheidippides was ordered to run to Sparta and appeal for aid. Why the appeal was left until the last minute when the Athenians could have sent requests some time beforehand is not explained and exposes the extent of dramatic invention in the text. The distance between Athens and Sparta is approximately one hundred and fifty kilometres (100 miles). Twice Herodotus says (Herodt. 6.107) that Pheidippides twice encountered the god Pan, either a personification of Dionysus or the god himself while on his way. The presence of Pan or Dionysus in this account is not a random event that was added for entertainment but was linked to the origin of the cult of this god at Athens and his cave on Mount Pentelicon, which rises to the southwest of the plain of Marathon. The runner is said to have met the god, a habitué of the mountainside, this time on Mount Parthenium just above the city of Tegea in the Peloponnese and on the frontier with Laconia. Pan addressed Pheidippides asking why he was not given honours in Athens when he had helped its people in the past and would again in the future. The Athenians did not forget this and when times were more favourable they built a temple dedicated to this deity beneath the Acropolis and from 490 held sacrifices and games in thanks for his intervention during this crisis. Again, myth has entered the account for Marathon when it is noticeably absent from the record of the Ionian War.

Pheidippides arrived in Sparta just twenty-four hours after he left Athens and in his appeal for Spartan aid he specifically noted that Eretria had just been destroyed. This pinpoints the episode to within a matter of days in the mid-summer of 490, and indeed Herodotus states (Herodt. 6.102) that the Persians remained on Euboea only for a few days. The Spartans are said to have been sympathetic but in accordance with their laws and because they were celebrating the festival of the Carneia celebrated between the seventh and fifteenth of the month Carneus (the Athenian month Metageitnion and roughly August) in honour of Apollo (Apollo Carneus), and since it was on the ninth day that Pheidippides addressed them they were unable to leave for another six days to join their allies. Pheidippides returned with a promise for future aid but nothing more. The runner’s mission also exposes the absence of Athenian planning and the ad-hoc nature of their preparations. The institutions of the democracy, while only recently inaugurated in Athens, tended to preclude rapid decision-making. The planning of the defence of Athens could easily have been placed in motion some months before particularly since the Athenians had known for some years that Persian revenge would come. They also had Mardonius’ campaigns of the previous year when contacts with trading partners in the Euxine had surely been affected. All in all, the myopic attitude of ancient communities to the outside world prevalent in antiquity is very plainly revealed here.

While the delay to their departure is attributed to a scrupulous observation of religious principles, there may have been suspicions that the reluctance on the part of the Spartans may also have been based on political grounds. And so a delay was also imposed on the Athenians, although there was no consensus. This is again clear from Herodotus who gives a glimpse of infighting among the ten generals and perhaps the rather ambiguous or very cautious approach of the person in command, Callimachus the polemarch (Herodt. 6.109), whose home town, Aphidnae, was just on the other side of the mountains from Marathon. Among the eleven was the same Miltiades who had fled from the Chersonese three years before and who had acquired the office of general on account of his exploits and family background. Herodotus writes that Miltiades, supported by four generals – there was deadlock about the best action to take – was for an immediate engagement with the enemy. This made some sense since the Athenians already held the higher ground and the Persians had to disembark.

The Athenians and their allies are said to have already encamped among the hills to the south of the bay. The Persians having rounded the northern headland, Cape Cynosura, into the bay of Marathon beached their enormous fleet, approximately two kilometres away from their enemy who must have been in full view of the attackers. Herodotus’ account is not coherent and some guesswork is needed to understand the events of the next few days. The Persians evidently disembarked and although the plain might have been suitable for employing cavalry units it would have taken a great deal of time to offload the horses and supplies and form them up into effective units. This will account for several days since not all the ships will have been able to beach at the same time and some complex schedule would have been enforced besides making an encampment for the troops and sending out foragers to meet all the needs of soldiers and animals alike.

The Athenians and their allies must have watched all these proceedings from their vantage point. The problem was one of waiting for the Spartans to arrive and thereby having battle-hardened troops among the front line. The Athenian citizen hoplites will have had very little recent experience of a battle, especially against a force that had obtained recent victories across the Aegean and on Euboea. Miltiades was the leading advocate, or so Herodotus claims, of an immediate engagement and this must be connected with not allowing the invaders to become comfortable in their new bridgehead. He persuaded Callimachus to vote against delaying any further and seems to have been concerned that some of the generals were secretly in contact with the Persians (Herodt. 6.109). It made good sense to catch the Persians and their allies unsettled and unprepared but there was also the adoption of some interesting strategy, attributed by modern scholars to Miltiades but in fact probably one that was discussed at length by the commanders, that of weakening the centre while adding extra troops to both wings of the army. This would result in the centre being deliberately allowed to withdraw in the face of superior weight from their opponents but also allowed the right and left wings of the army to rout their opposition and then sweep round to attack the enemy’s main concentration of troops from the rear.