Remember Battle of Marathon Part 4: Who Led the Greeks? Check it out and then keep reading here!
Miltiades maneuvers and manipulations worked well for a few years, but then an overwhelming threat emerged in the east. The Persian Empire, under the rule of Great King Darius (550–486 BC), was expanding toward the Chersonese and all of Thrace. Miltiades responded by demonstrating his well-deserved instinct for survival that relied on shrewd duplicity. He joined forces with Darius. Then for years Miltiades fought with the Persians, and his subservience lasted until Miltiades thought he could outfox Darius by abandoning the Great King in a battle campaign that should have ended with Darius’ death. But Great Kings are neither easily outfoxed nor easily killed. Darius survived so the tables turned and Miltiades had to run for his life. He ran straight back to Athens in 492 BC, two years before the battle of Marathon.
There are several reasons to believe that Miltiades was the leader of the Athenians at Marathon, including the following three:
First, when Miltiades returned to Athens he brought something with him that no other Athenian possessed – an up close and personal knowledge of exactly how the Persians thought and fought, their tactics and strategy.
Second, subsequent to Miltiades’ death about a year after the Battle of Marathon, he was widely acknowledged as the Greek leader during the battle. The third and by far most persuasive reason to believe that Miltiades led the Greeks at Marathon is that the Father of History, Herodotus (484–425 BC), recognized Miltiades as the leader. (For an image and discussion of Herodotus, go to this website’s Resources/Contact Us page.) Herodotus’ The Histories, written a generation after Marathon, is without question the most authoritative source about the Greek Persians Wars in general and the Battle of Marathon in particular. While it is well established that Herodotus sometimes exaggerated and embellished his historical accounts, we must be very cautious to declare Herodotus wrong. Thus, the majority of scholars accept that Miltiades was, indeed, the Greek leader at the Battle of Marathon.
However, there are potent arguments that Herodotus was, in fact, wrong. Stay tuned for more.
The leader of the Greeks at Marathon is uncertain. One of two possibilities is Miltiades, a complex character with a dubious reputation.
The image of Miltiades’ smashed, bronze helmet is from the Archaeological Museum of Ancient Olympia. Miltiades offered his helmet to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and the inscription on the helmet states, “Miltiades dedicates this helmet to Zeus.” It is cause for reflection that, 2,500 years after the fact, we can look upon a real helmet that was used in the real Battle of Marathon (although some scholars, who often seem to enjoy spoiling our otherwise uplifting imagination, suggest that Miltiades’ helmet may have been dedicated before the battle instead of being used in the battle).
Miltiades (550–489 BC) was born into a prominent Athenian family. In his mid-30s, Miltiades left his homeland to become the ruler of the Thracian Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli). Miltiades went to the Chersonese to replace his brother who had been the ruler until an ax cleaved his head. Upon his arrival, Miltiades went into mourning for his brother and invited all the local leaders to offer their condolences. They dutifully obliged and all of them ended up imprisoned by Miltiades who then hired 500 hundred mercenaries to ensure loyalty throughout the land. Miltiades also married the daughter of the King of Thrace (located immediately north of the Chersonese) in order to form an alliance and strengthen Miltiades’ rule.
Stay tuned for more information on Miltiades. Battle of Marathon Part 5: Miltiades coming soon.
The Greeks revered valor and glory. “Valor” is akin to “courage.” Valor is internal; it resides within a person and is manifested by action. That action, for an ancient Greek man, often meant “stand your ground” and “fight to the death.” For an ancient Greek woman, valor often meant to “endure,” to “persevere” – to remain “steadfast” and “true.” For those familiar with Homer’s Odyssey, think of Penelope’s faithful 20-year wait for the return of her husband.
“Glory” was different. Glory was external to the being of an ancient Greek. Glory was determined by others and what they thought about an individual, especially an individual’s valor. Glory meant recognition and respect. Ultimately, glory meant that an ancient Greek was worthy of the highest goal – to be remembered long after the person’s soul departed for the Underworld (Hades).
The Battle of Marathon ranks extremely high in terms of both valor and glory. It naturally follows that the name of the man who led the Greeks in this first clash of civilizations would have been celebrated and his name passed down to following generations to be remembered in perpetuity. However, the leader of the Greeks at Marathon is uncertain...
One of two possibilities is Miltiades, a complex character with a dubious reputation. Stay tuned for Battle of Marathon Part 4: Who Led the Greeks?
The most famous person to fight at Marathon was Aeschylus, and what he thought about his participation in the battle reveals a lot about the mentality of ancient Greeks.
Today, we know Aeschylus because of his writings. He is the “Father of Tragedy” – the first of the renowned trio of ancient Greek tragedians, along with Sophocles and Euripides. Aeschylus’ surviving plays include: The Persians (based on the Battle of Salamis in which Aeschylus also fought ten years after Marathon); Seven Against Thebes; The Suppliants; The Oresteia; Prometheus Bound. A strong argument can be made that Aeschylus has only one rival who might be a worthy contender for the title of “best” playwright ever – Shakespeare.
Given his profound literary reputation, one might expect Aeschylus to mention his accomplishments in the epitaph on his tomb that he most likely wrote about himself before he died in the land of Gela, in Sicily. Indeed, that epitaph does identify the lifetime accomplishment that was most important to Aeschylus and, as previously noted, his thinking provides insight into the minds of ancient Greeks:
Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, the Athenian, son of Euphorion,
who died in Gela’s wheat-growing land.
His glorious valor the hallowed Plain of Marathon can tell,
and the long-haired Persians know it well.
The Battle of Marathon, fought in 490 BC, was the Persian Empire’s first assault wave to wash away the cradle of Western Civilization. The odds against the Greeks were staggering. The Greeks were heavily outnumbered, although it is uncertain exactly by how many. A reasonable estimate is that about 40,000 Persian soldiers fought 10,000 Greeks (9,000 Athenians plus 1,000 Plataeans). In addition, there may have been another 40,000 Persian sailors, although most of them probably did not directly engage in the battle.
The Persian advantages consisted of more than numbers – much more. The Persian archers were deadly at both long and short range. As the Greek and Persian formations marched toward each other, Persian archers would begin by aiming high to rain arrows at maximum distance, and as the enemy formations closed the archers would progressively lower their aim to finally shoot parallel to the ground and point blank into the midst of the oncoming Greeks. The Persians had hundreds of bowmen and the Greeks had few if any.
Even more important, the Persians had their warhorses. The Persian cavalry numbered perhaps a thousand horses and riders using bows and arrows while the Greeks had none. The Persian horses could race up and down the sides or flanks of the enemy, out of the Greeks’ spear-throwing range but well within the range of the arrows whistling in from the deadly accurate bowmen atop their galloping steeds.
Stay tuned for the next post, Battle of Marathon Part 2: Aeschylus, Father of Tragedy.
Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, wearing a short chiton (common to both women and men in Ancient Greece) and clasping the garment at her shoulder with a fibula or broach. The original marble statue was made in the 4th century B.C. by the renowned Athenian sculptor, Praxiteles (the first sculptor of life-size nude females). Artemis was known as Diana to the Romans. This original statue is known as “Diana of Gabii” and displayed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The Corinthian helmet was used by ancient Greek soldiers (called hoplites) during the Greek Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.). Constructed of thick bronze and weighed about 8 pounds. Provided superb protection but was stifling hot to wear and severely interfered with vision and hearing. The helmet gave the Greeks an intimidating, Darth Vader-like appearance 2,500 years before Mr. Vader existed.
Most of what we know about everything related to the Greek Persian Wars comes from the most famous person born in Halicarnassus – Herodotus (484–425 BC). Herodotus was the world’s first true historian, so he is known as the “Father of History.” His claim to fame is his masterpiece – The Histories – devoted to the Greek Persian Wars.