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Marathon: Attack on the Run

By Jim Lacey
3/11/2011 • Military History

The onrushing wall of heavily armored and shielded Greek hoplites smashed into the Persian line, pressing it back to the sea.
The onrushing wall of heavily armored and shielded Greek hoplites smashed into the Persian line, pressing it back to the sea.

The Greeks mustered before dawn. As usual the men ate no breakfast. Instead, they turned quietly to the task of donning their armor. Then, after hefting heavy shields onto their shoulders, they made their way through gaps in the defensive barrier. The full moon had passed, but enough light remained to enable each man to find his place in formation. Only the sounds of thousands of shuffling feet and the periodic clang of striking shields broke the silence. All along the line, veterans whispered encouragement to younger men, urging them to keep close and shelter themselves as much as possible behind their neighbor’s shield. Here and there someone would void himself uncontrollably. Men would chuckle about that later, but for the moment little was said. Fear was natural. It was forgiven, as long as the man stayed in line.

‘Men screamed, fought and died. But soon enough the hoplites had passed through the infantry and gotten among the unprotected archers. Then the real killing began’

Dawn broke. The order came—advance.

In the center was the Leontis tribe, commanded by Themistocles, and the Antiochis tribe, led by Aristides. The men despised one another, but today their tribes stood side by side, tasked with the day’s most difficult and dangerous mission. Any chance the Athenians had for victory rested on the valor of these generals and their men. On the far right, its flank to the ocean, stood the Aiantis tribe. Leading it was Thrasylaos, accompanied by his son Stesilaos. Stesilaos would not survive the day, dying within arm’s reach of his father. Also standing in the Aiantis ranks was Greece’s greatest dramatist, Aeschylus. Today he would fight bravely but also witness the savage death of his brother Cynegeirus.

The advancing Greeks were in clear view of the Persians, as had been the case for several days. Today, though, the Greeks were silent. Absent was the taunting of previous days. Did Datis, admiral of the Persian fleet, preoccupied with loading his ships, note the silence? Perhaps not. The night loading had not gone well. How could it, as his men had never tried it before? The Persians had broken down most of their camp but had yet to load the collected booty. They had managed to put most of their ships into the water but had not finished loading their horses.

Datis must have seen that the Athenian lines were tighter, more disciplined. But if he or any of the other Persians noticed any difference, it did not cause them to change their routine. As they had done every morning since landing at Marathon, they formed to face the Greeks. There seemed no reason for haste. After all, they still had three times the Athenian numbers. Even the Greeks were not crazy enough to attack against such odds.

In unison the Greeks began to sing the holy paean. When the song ended, the hoplites stepped off. For the first few steps they walked, but then the pace picked up, first to a fast walk and then to a trot. The hoplites crushed together, shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield. Fear melted away now the army was advancing. Men who had soiled themselves drew strength from the surging men around them. Six hundred yards from enemy lines the mass of men began to scream their fierce and nerve-shattering battle cry: “Alleeee!“

The Persians could not believe what they were seeing. The Athenians had neither cavalry nor archers. This attack was madness. But the Athenians were coming on, and they were coming fast.

Hastily, the Persian commanders aligned their troops. Men holding wicker shields went to the front, while thousands of archers arrayed themselves in the rear. Despite the speed of the Athenian attack, the Persians showed no panic. They were professionals, victors of dozens of bloody battles. The force coming at them was a novel sight, but none doubted they would make short work of the charging hoplites.

The Persian spearmen were in line now, waiting patiently for the release of the hail of arrows that would darken the sky and decimate their foe. That done, the infantry would advance to slaughter the shattered remnant.

But a different kind of war was charging down on them now. And it was arriving at almost incomprehensible speed, for at 200 yards the Athenian trot became a sprint. The Athenian hoplites’ kind of war would not be decided by a hail of arrows. A collision of wooden shields and deadly iron-tipped spears wielded by heavily armored warriors would settle matters. This was a terrifying confrontation of screaming, half-crazed men who stabbed, gouged and kicked at their opponents until one side broke. Then the real slaughter would begin, as men rushed forward in murderous pursuit of the fleeing foe.

The Persian archers finally let fly—but to no effect. Never having seen such a rapid advance, many archers mistimed their shots. Masses of arrows missed their mark entirely. Of those that did strike the Athenians, most bounced off shields and heavy armor. The archers hastily reloaded, as the shield bearers and protecting infantry, seeing that 10,000 killers were almost upon them, inched backward.

In an instant the Greeks smashed into the lightly protected Persians and convulsed their line. Trampling the Persians’ wicker shields, the hoplites destroyed the first rank of enemy infantry. Few of their spears shattered on impact (unusual for a hoplite battle), as the Persians lacked sufficient armor. Men screamed, fought and died. But soon enough the hoplites had passed through the infantry and gotten among the unprotected archers. Then the real killing began.

The Greek flanks, where Callimachus had massed his hoplites eight deep, made rapid progress, while the Persian flanks, facing the men of Aiantis on the Athenian right and the Plataeans on the left, quickly lost their cohesion. In places unprotected Persian archers drew their short swords and daggers and tried to make a stand. But they made little impression on the Greek line of locked shields. The phalanx rolled over its opposition, killing as it came. The front line of Greeks, intent on killing or maiming those Persians still standing, stepped over the enemy wounded, leaving them to the stabbing swarm of light troops in their wake. Overwhelmed by the horror of hoplite warfare, the Persian flanks soon broke and ran for the safety of the ships.

In ancient battles this was the time when the losing side incurred most of its casualties. Panicked men on the run are incapable of any defense. In turn, their pursuers, propelled by an instinctual bloodlust, would almost always break formation as they rushed to cut down the fleeing enemy from behind. And for about 100 yards this was just what the Athenians did.

But then they did the impossible. At least it would have been impossible, had the Athenian army been the mass of unprofessional rustics that tradition posits.

Callimachus, seeing the Persian left routed, ordered the bugle blown, immediately halting the Greek right flank. For a moment the killing stopped, as the Athenian ranks swung inward 90 degrees. Behind them swept the light troops, armed similarly to the Persians but with the inestimable advantage of pursuing rather than fleeing in panic. These light troops would not be decisive, but they would maintain pressure and protect the Athenian flank while Callimachus closed the jaws of his trap. Another bugler sounded on the left flank, and here too Greeks and Plataeans quickly re-formed their ranks and turned toward the center of the battlefield. We mustn’t pass over these actions too lightly. What the Athenian army accomplished could only be done by a professional force as part of a preset plan. Moreover, such a maneuver required iron combat discipline found only in veteran units.

While the Athenian flanks carried all before them, things had not gone well in the center. Here, the hoplites were arrayed only four deep, and the men of the Leontis and Antiochis tribes lacked the numbers and sheer mass to overwhelm their opponents. They were also facing the heavily armored and disciplined core of the enemy army, the Persians and Saka. The first impact had sent the Persians reeling, but after that numbers told. After an exhausting charge, there was a limit to how long the front-rank Athenians could fight. To keep the pressure on, the Greeks did what they could to move fresher hoplites forward, but the press of the Persian counterattack made that difficult. Thankfully, Callimachus did not expect them to advance but simply to hold. Unfortunately, even that was proving difficult.

Despite the exhortations of the intrepid Aristides and Themistocles, the Athenians were nearing exhaustion and could no longer resist the weight of Persian numbers. But the Greek veterans did not break. They fell back with deliberate slowness, killing their enemies even in retreat. As the Greeks bowed back, they entered the woods near their camp. The broken terrain caused the phalanx to lose its cohesion. Gaps opened between the shields, and hoplites began to fall. The men of Antiochus suffered heavily, and Aristides must have known his men were close to breaking. In another moment the Athenians would be swept aside, and the Persians would win the day.

Then, salvation.

Having reset their lines, the Athenian flanks stepped off again, aiming
at the now-exposed flanks of the Persian center. It is likely the Persians and Saka, locked in mortal combat with the hoplites to their front and sensing imminent victory, had overlooked the looming threat. Twin killing machines now steamrolled down on them, crushing the victory they had glimpsed only a moment before. Any Persians who could, ran. Many, however, were trapped and died where they stood.

Datis could see what was happening to his center and must have cursed the fact he lacked enough organized troops to launch a counterattack. But it was all he could do to collect stragglers to resist the Athenian light troops. Datis also knew that when the Athenian troops finished massacring the Persians and Saka, they would come at him again. Behind him thousands of panicked men were wading into the water, looking for any ship that could take them aboard. Datis needed to buy these men time. If he could get enough of them away, there might still be a chance for victory.

The Greek phalanx came on again. By now dust obscured the shine of the Athenian shields, and drying blood dulled the gleam of their spear points. As for the men holding those spears, they were dirty, drenched in sweat and splattered with blood. But they knew they had won and were advancing with fresh determination. To Datis’ men the sight must have been horrifying. But they knew there was nowhere to go, and through personal example, Datis held them to their duty.

This time the Greeks came on with deliberate slowness. Spared the crashing shock of a phalanx impacting at a run, the Persian line did not immediately break. The battle near the ships became desperate as men grappled at close quarters. Callimachus fell, mortally wounded, and Aeschylus saw his brother’s hand chopped off as he grabbed hold of a Persian ship. After a long, hard fight the Persians gave way, and the Athenians swept across the narrow beach. But Datis’ line had held long enough for most of his ships and surviving soldiers to escape. In the end the Athenians were able to capture only seven vessels. The surviving Persians moved out to sea.

As the Persian fleet sailed into the Aegean, the Athenian hoplites rested while the light troops hunted and killed Persian stragglers, particularly those hiding in the Great Marsh. When the Athenian generals took stock, they found that 192 Athenian hoplites lay dead. Most of these casualties had been from the tribes of the Antiochis, which had been hard-pressed in the center, and the Aiantis, which had suffered serious losses near the ships. Still, it had been a great victory, for more than 6,000 Persian dead littered the battlefield.

As a messenger winged his way to Athens, exultant hoplites looked out to sea in horror. The Persian ships were heading south. Athens was undefended, and the Persians would be landing on the beaches of Phaleron, just miles from the city, before sunset. For a few moments the hoplites stared uncomprehendingly, wondering if the battle had been for nothing. Soon, though, a new leader, possibly Miltiades, took the place of the dead Callimachus and began issuing orders.

All along the beach exhausted hoplites steeled themselves for one more great effort. They hefted spears, shouldered shields and re-formed their regiments. The bloodied Antiochis regiment was left to secure the battlefield and the rich booty in the Persian camp. The other nine tribal regiments set off on a race against time. It was almost 26 miles to Athens, and the Persians had a head start.

When Datis eventually arrived off the coast of Phaleron, he saw that through an almost superhuman effort the Athenian hoplites had beaten him there. Along the ridge overlooking the beach stood thousands of Greek warriors, ready to contest the Persian landing. After suffering huge losses, and with his force still disorganized, Datis had had enough. The Persian ships turned back out to sea.

Athens had won.

The next morning 2,000 Spartans arrived. They had missed the fighting but still wanted to see the battlefield, likely to confirm the victory was as great as the Athenians claimed. Later in the day, having toured Marathon, they praised the victors and marched for home.

With Callimachus dead, Miltiades was the hero of the hour. Making good use of his political ascendancy, he demanded the Athenian assembly give him troops and control of Athens’ 70-ship fleet for a punitive expedition into the Aegean. Setting out almost immediately after Marathon, in fall 490 BC, he began a circuit of Aegean islands that had supported Persia. Most submitted on his approach, but several had to be taken by assault. All were ordered to pay an indemnity to Athens, to offset the cost of the war. Not until he approached Paros, in the spring or summer of 489 BC, did he run into serious opposition. Paros had sent a trireme to assist the Persians at Marathon, so Miltiades set a particularly high indemnity for them—100 talents. The Parians refused to pay, so Miltiades laid siege to the city. He had driven it to the point of capitulation when a forest fire started on the far side of the island. The Parians had sent for Persian assistance and mistakenly interpreted the distant glow as a signal help was on the way. Buoyed by the anticipated reinforcement, the Parians broke off surrender negotiations. Miltiades, suffering from a wound or severely broken leg, could not maintain the siege any longer and sailed for home.

He had been away too long, and upon his arrival he found his political enemies aligned against him. His failure at Paros had given them an opening. Miltiades had promised success and treasure. Instead, he had handed Athens a humiliating failure and drained the treasury. Once again Miltiades found himself on trial for his life. Owing to his continued popularity with the mob, he managed to avoid execution but was fined a ruinous 50 talents. Not that it mattered to Miltiades. The wound he had suffered on Paros had gangrened, and he died soon after the trial ended.

Text excerpted from The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization, by Jim Lacey, Bantam, New York, 2011, $26. Copyright 2011 by Jim Lacey. All rights reserved.

34 Responses to Marathon: Attack on the Run

  1. John Merkatatis says:

    A good article and a very vivid and absorbing narrative;however,I would like to stand on certain points and do that by page:
    Page one a)the Athenians and Plataeans had to descend the slopes of mt Kithaeron, where their camp was for fear of a Persian cavalry charge,before mustering.
    b)You write that the centre had a special mission,but you don’t expand
    Their mission was to hold initially the Persians and then retreat by bending the line and not break despite the cost.
    c) The commander in Marathon was Miltiades son of Miltiades previoully Lord of ‘the Chersonese’ who had many victorious encounters against the Persians during the Ionian revolt and when Ionians were defeated,he escaped to Athens with five ships.
    Because of his experience,the ten Athenian generals including the Callimachus,the war-Archon,deferred to Miltiades,and we see this example repeated again during the Persian wars.
    The war archon,of course,was traditionally commanding the right wing
    of the army.
    Miltiades extended the Athenian line by weakening the centre,so he intended to crash the Persian wings with his wings and then destroy the Persian centre,as much as he could since he didn’t have cavalvry to block the road of retreat.
    Now this is a perfect battle of tactical ‘absorption’ the first in history (see “Military History-Swiss Army Directorate of Military Studies/History)
    d) Here we must stress the point of numbers:Greek Historians of ancient times used to give the number of the soldiers in th phalanx,the honorable citizens who had the means to purchase hoplite armour and the shield.The 10000 Athenians in Marathon and the 1000 Plataeans were honorable citizens;but what about the proletarians(thetes) who later would manage the oars of the great Athenian fleet in Salamis?and the metics? the abovementioned source gives their numbers as 20000,all Javeliners and slingers(see also on the numbers A.R.Burn’s thourough treatment of the topic in his authoritavie book “Persia and the Greeks”),but not a single archer since the bow was not sufficiently strong to penetrate heavy armour.
    All the above were organized and trained to destroy infantry and cavalry as they were protected behind the hoplite lines.
    e) Now Jim,there is no evidence whatsoever that the cavalry was loaded in the ships.Herodotus doesn’t mention it but a pottery fragment in the “Poikile Stoa” in Athens depicts the death of Callimachus in the middle of hoplites in the one side and Persians in the other including cavalry.
    Bury&Meiggs in “History of Ancient Greece discusses the problem in depth in the footnotes in the back of the Text and from the various assumptions the most plausible is that the cavalry had gone to water the horses in the stream to the north(clearly visable in the map) during tthe dark hours of the early morning so it could be available later,and that is what certain Ionians from the camp of Datis shouted to the Grreksfrom the trees and that was what Miltiades was waiting to signal the attack which was running all theway(not 200 metres) because it was a race against time;until Datis realised what was going on and send for the cavalry,the greek wings had broken the Persians and the returning cavalry in haste probably faced swarms of fugites ,impossible to form for full charge and fired by the slingers and javeliners had little if any effect on the battle as it was developing.
    .Page two a)The Persian archers could only fire in orbit and not direct since they were positioned behind the Persian infantry but a running target is very difficult to find ,and even if they did would be more or less of nuisance value against armour and shields.(See analysis of the battle of Plataea about the effect of Persian arrows against stationarry Spartans)

    • Jim lacey says:

      Well… it was just a short article.

      I believe every point you make is addressed (and examined in some depth) in my book — “The First Clash”

  2. John Merkatatis says:

    I forgot(I was in a hurry) the ref.for the last sentence:Proffessor A.R.Burn(Cantab) “Persia and the Greeks”-battle of Plataea-probably the formost authority in Ancient Greek history.

    PS: another well read General who new about Miltiades and Marathon
    273 years later applied Miltiades’plan with a difference,he had cavalry.
    The result was of nuclear proportions like Hiroshima,almost 80000 dead in the space of a single afternoon in the battle of Cannae.His name was Hannibal Barca.

  3. Hazarpatish says:

    This article barely pays attention to the Persian side of events. First of all, not once does Herodotus mention that the centre “retreated” on purpose. Instead, he says they were broken. Secondly, the imperial army was hardly 3 times the size of the Greek one. What we can discern from Herodotus writing is that there was a single regiment of Persians (10 thousand men), one Saka cavalry unit (1000) and a number of Greeks, no more than 5 thousand. The battlefield effectively cancelled out the cavalry, and of the 10 thousand infantry, only 2000 were the heavy frontline sparabara spearmen (the Achaemenid army was organized around the sabatam, a unit of 20 spearmen and 80 archers). Seeing as these men were intended as defensive troops and to deliver the final assault together with cavalry and auxiliaries on the flanks, they were not the best bet against a phalanx. So in the end, we get a hard fought Greek victory against a foe not suited for the circumstances.

    • Jim lacey says:

      I encourage you to read the book (The First Clash) — It covers the Persian side of the equation in great detail.

    • kevin says:

      Thats not entirely true. As we know that Datis arrived on a mission to do subjugate. There are other records to validate the size of the army, by number of boats, the incense burning ritual, etc. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with any number presented here. Its a good narrative effort.

      There is no point being pedantic about all of this. I’d encourage you to expand your reading.

      The Battle resonates thru history because the victory wrote the script. There is once again evidence to argue otherwise on your points.
      The plain of Marathon is well suited to Cav in parts, despite the marshes.

      The Persians mode of combat was typically missile based, and cav based, with fast light/medium infantry. Their heavy infantry did not use the same sort of tactics, nor arms and armour at this point as the Greek hoplite. The ‘other Greeks’ at the battle were also lightly armoured.,

      anyway this is a waste of time as it resolves nothing.

      Thanks for writing and great comments everyone

  4. Hazarpatish says:

    P.S. I forgot to mention the fac that hoplites were not novel to Achaemenids. They had first fought them at Thymbra, where Cyrus defeated the enormous Lydian army by neutralising their cavalry superiority with baggage camels. Then thy had fought against hoplites in Egypt, and the Ionian revolt. They defeated their foe in every field battle.

  5. John Merkatatis says:

    mr Hazarpatish,
    1)I think you should read Herodotus more carefully;nowhere in the text(Original Greek text or the translated English Edition,the introduction of which is what you should pay attention to) of his “Histories” does he say that the Athenian centre broke, on the contrary,he said that they retreated in order something that shows intentioned planned retreat and also justifies the very few casualties up to that stage of the battle.
    2)The numbers you present make no sense;in an overseas expedition,against a leading Greek City State,which,ten years later fielded 40000 men,all citizens,to man its fleet,and at least 15000 land army in Aegina,Troizina and Isthmus(all citizens without counting auxiliaries as it was the custom at that time), Darius would have sent…a regiment of light armed troops(as you say!)? with all due respect,I have Darius the First a much too clever and battle-hardened Monarch to commit such folly…and Athens,having had its soil invaded by an army of Persia would have sent just…5000 men? sounds preposterous to the mind…
    3)The Persians had met hoplites before you say? they certainly had! neither Croesus (king of Lydia) infantry with leather coats..nor Ionian Greeks been under Coesus for a long time and unused to fighting; but as Erick Mauraise writes in his ‘Introduction to Military History’ about the battle of Pelusium(525 BC) where the Persians defeated the Egyptians and conquered Egypt “…only for a moment, the small Greek mercenary contingent put the battle in the balance;their desperate resistance will astonish the Easterners and it fortold the outcome of the Greek-Persian wars and the eventual fall of the Persian Empire.”
    I agree with you that the eastern Greeks suffered a series of defeats
    at the hands of the Persian army,but not the veteran armies of mainland Greece like Athenians who were facing Thebans and few years before defending the young democracy destroyed the powerful coalision of Thebes,Chalkis and Sparta by defeating the Thebans and in the same day shattered the Chalkidians
    (the Spartans retreated without engagement).
    4) a hard won victory? I think that numbers speak for themselves:
    192+11 to 6400? a crushing defeat for the Persians. The Greek plan,equipment and training and overall their motivation did the rest.

  6. Hazarpatish says:

    Well, for an expert like you, you should be aware that in pre-gunpowder battles often more than 90% of all casualties occur during the rout. Lightly armored? The shieldbearers wore iron scale armor – paired with the reinforced wicker shield, this gave a high level of protection. The archers wore only linen corselets and bore axes and short swords, so as not to impair their archery. You may argue all you want, but the Persian sabatam was definately an archer heavy formation.

    Now to the second part – your description of Lydian infantry is a gross oversimplification. Yes, they had various types of infantry, but even Lydians themselves tradiionally fought in a way very similar to the hoplite. Not to mention the auxiliaries from Ionia, Caria, Phrygia that were true hoplites.

    All holites fight the same way. Any phalanx is strong as long as it’s coherent, so we have no reason to believe the Ionians were in any way inferior to mainland Greeks. So after crushing the rebellion (took so much time because it was one of the largest revolts in Achaemenid history, and the terrain of Anatolia was not the best for quickly deploying armies) Darius had not a single reason to believe his veteran professional soldiers could ne defeated by Greeks.

    My final point – note that you have no reason to claim Greek warfare was inherently superior, since although exposed to hoplites for centuries, the empire never incoroporated them into the regular army. The sabatam was used throughout the dynasty, only replaced by more infantry oriented formations when facing the threat posed by the Macedonian pike phalanx (which, ironically, was developed to defeat hoplites).

    • J.Merkatatis says:

      Hazarpatish,please be more careful treating military history: what you say about losses in the stage of persuit applies only to eastern military systems .The fact that you misunderstand concepts is that you are not military, or you haven’t dealt with military history as such:”Eastern Military Systems” and ‘Western military Systems’ are terms of Military History mentioned and treated from Xenophon to Vegetius,to Leo VI of Byzantium, to Zomini,Erich Mauraise etc.On the contrary,the Crusades you mention belong to the Middle Ages a period of tactical and strategic stagnation in Europe with nothing worth mentioning apart from its last period which,of course doesn’t include the Crusades.Please revise your view or read additional specialised material.I have explained the difference below;at applies to the method of fighting.In the west,a hoplite battle is decisive and in the losses on the battlefield which are rather extensive and persuit is not necessary or difficult to achieve due to the inadequacy of cavalry,or the absence of it.

      • Hazarpatish says:

        “Eastern military systems”… Eastern military systems my ass, to be profane.

        So the Romans and Macedonians at Pydna were eastern forces? You know, only 70 Romans dying to 8000 Macedonians – obviously killed during the rout.

        Or, I don’t know, Pharsalus… Or pretty much any other battle that wasn’t a siege. The Greeks are rather unique in this matter, since their way of war seemed to be designed to shed as much blood on both sides as possible.

      • Hazarpatish says:

        Also, “western military systems” should include Celts, Germanians and Native Americans as well.

        Finally, there was no inherent inferiority or superiority in either of “these groups”.

        The “east” could produce excellent heavy infantry – notably the Egyptians, Anatolians and Assyrians, and the “west” could produce fine cavalry – notably Celts, Iberians and medieval knights.

        Dismissing the medieval era as nothing to speak about is simply ridiculous, 1000 years thrown into the dump just because they sound less glorious? Just because “the east” was more advanced?

        Finally, You do realize that all we know of the Greeks comes from Greek sources. So you can rest assured 100% that there were defeats we will never hear about. After all, Ionia was part of the Persian empire, as was Cyrenaica and Cyprus.

        P.S. I am sorry to use profanity, but saying Persians, Indians and Chinese are a single group militarily and that they practiced the same way of war is simply retarded.

  7. Hazarpatish says:

    P.S. I never said Athens had 5000 men. The imperial auxiliaries numbered no more than 5 thousand.

    Before I forget – Hazarpatish is not a name, it’s a rank, commander of a thousand.

  8. John Merkatatis says:

    Thank you for the information on Persian ranks,although I was under the impression that there was a commander of hundreds and a commander of thousands(not ‘thousand’) and the system accords to the subdivisions in the Persian army which had divisions up to 60000 men in strength-anyway I may be wrong in the names of titles.
    Now Hazarpatish some more precise information:That the Greek Military System was superior to the Persian is an established fact not because I claim it, but falls under the comparison of Eastern and Western military systems as it appears to all Introductions of military history,to make it simpler:
    Eastern system: extended open spaces-great distances,make it practically very difficult to move effectively without horse so development of cavalry-
    hot climates make it impossible to develop armour-soldiers wear linen tunics or similar so the bow and arrow become effective in warfare and it is also born by cavalries(firing cavalries) and no real attention to infantry apart from the Immortals whose cumbersome combination of bow spear and sword +shield made engagement very difficult(Erick Mauraise)
    Western Systems -temperate climate,(Greece-Italy) extended mountain aereas,city-states developed in small valleys,communication elementary and on foot or ship-development of heavy armour,the bow is considered a toy to be used by godesses like Diana(Artemis)-note out of 20000 auxilliaries in Marathon,slingers and javelliners(in the Athenian army) there is not a single bowman.
    The battle has decisive results and determines wars-in the east retreat and run to fight another day is more common.
    The strengthening of the bow much later gave supremacy to the Eastern Systems (Parthians-Turks-Mongols) which was terminated by
    the invention of the gunpowder.
    and something else:none in his right mind sends …defensive troops in an offensive campaign like opposed landings which are the most difficult Military operations,and is not correct for you to maintain that
    underrating Darius in this matter;

    • Hazarpatish says:

      Do not use the east-west differential in any era before the Crusades, please, because it is simply wrong. There was no “east” and there was no “west”, there were regional cultural groups like Northern Iranians (Scythians), Southern Iranians, Mesopotamian Semites, Western Anatolians, Caucasians, Western Semites (notably Phoenicians), Egyptians, Greeks, Thracians, etc.

      Now on to equipment. Shield plus bow combination is not efficient at all, and there is no evidence to support it was actually used. All Persian reliefs show troops either with bows or shields, never them both, and I am inclined to trust these more than Greek reports. You have to understand who the Persians were (I am not from Iran in case you accuse me of extreme bigotry. I admit I am biased towards Persia a bit, but that is only because of my fascination with their cultural heritage)

      Let’s start. Persians were arguably closely related to Medes, the steppe people who moved in from central Asia in about 1200BC, and were enemies to the Assyrians. The Parsava, as they were called, were one of the first groups to arrive on the Iranian plateau and settled in the mountainous region of Parsa. Against the popular misconception that Persia is a desert, the climate there was much cooler and less arid there than in Elam to the west, which was suitable for these northern invaders (2500 years ago the climate was cooler in Asia, since Central Asia was covered in steppe, not desert). Initially they probably fought as horse archers like the Medes, but gradually settled down permanently and adapted to living in the mountains. They were never really unified, consisting of clans and tribes competing over land, only nominally united under two separate kings, both of which later became vassals of the Mede tribal confederation/”empire”. In the constant warfare there arose a warrior spirit, and each Persian was judged by his exploits in battle. The terrain favored archers in coordination with quick infantry strikes, and the cavalry branch slowly died out because of the difficulty of fielding horses (equestrian training still remained as cavalry was the most prestigious part of almost every ancient army). Thus we get the basic outline of their way of war – archers in close cooperation with heavily armed spearmen/axemen. This is also represented by the fact that all Parsava boys were trained in archery and hand to hand combat from the age of 5.

      And thus was Persia when Cyrus II came to power. His ascension is shrouded in mistery, and it is possible he was only 16 when he became king of Parsa. Be it as it may, he managed to unite the tribes of Parsa and depose the king of Ansan, annexing it. This troubled the Medes, who decided to annex Persia totally. So Cyrus struck an alliance with other subjects of the Medes and a war started. While Herodotus claims there were only three battles, this seems unlikely since the Mede empire was the third most powerful state in western Asia. Cyrus now faced a problem – the Persians were not numerous, and he needed troops to defeat the larger and more powerful Mede cavalry armies. So he turned to Persian military tradition and warrior culture, and created formations of archers working in unison with spearmen, which proved to be an incredibly versatile formation. This allowed him to defeat the Medes and seize the “throne”, which actually only meant getting the allegiance of the Budians and Strukhatians, the two most powerful Mede clans. So he spent the next 3 or 4 years conquering the remaining Medes and their former vassals. Now Croesus, the king of Lydia decided that the new state was not as powerful as the former Medes, so he took his chance to seize as much of eastern Anatolia as possible. This proved to be a grave mistake and we know what happened next. During this campaign Cyrus’ troops became hardened veterans, now supported by excellent Mede cavalry.

      So now that we have come this far, you should have realized the main idea behind the Satabam was versatility. The Achaemenid army relied on the Persians themselves for its main part, and Persians were one of the least numerous peoples in the empire. It is possible that after the conquest of Lydia there were more Greeks in Persia than Persians. Since every Persian man was in reserve, and the empire was constantly at war, there was a need for standardized formation and versatility. The same troops had to be able to face Saka horse archers, Massagetae armored lancers, Indian elephants, Thracian peltasts and Greek hoplites.

      And as you see the empire survived for almost three hundred years despite constant invasions and the Egyptian habit of devastatingly revolting.

      Conclusion: While the hoplites are obviously superior in their very limited role of walking up to the enemy and slowly slugging it out, the Persian troops were much better performers overall. Not to mention that when faced with heavier infantry their tactics were to hold the enemy with a part of their forces, while maneuvering reserves and cavalry around the flanks and to the rear. If that sounds familiar to you, yes, that tactic was actually used long before Alexander.

      Second part: Ranks and officers. The base of the entire army was the ten men, who formed a column or two parallel ones in the Satabam. Between the ten men, two were non commisioned officers, trained to perceive trumpet commands. One was the most experienced man who stood at the front, and was the most heavily armored of the unit, and the other was the lead archer, who stood at the back to command arrow fire. Then there was the most experienced man of the hundred, who was the officer of the unit. Ten satabam were organized into a unit of thousand, and these were organized into regiments of ten thousand. Which is well known due to preserved Achaemenid bureaucratic records. You speak of an officer of 60 thousand – no, but there were the generals who commanded any field army of any size when the king was not present, and were directly appointed by him.

      N.B. Do NOT use the east-west division before the crusades. And even then it is an oversimplification, but in this case it is just gross. The Persians were initially more similar to Greeks in their appearance, language and tradition than they were to the Assyrians or Babylonians hence their common ancestry.

      • Arush Rehman says:

        What an in-depth and an excellent account of the battle Hazarpatish that was a very interesting post.
        Thank You.

      • J.Merkatatis says:

        I am not talking about ‘division’,the meaning of the word is irrelevant in the present context,I didn’t write about any offficers commanding 60000 men,please read carefully,I mention that the Persian army was structured into divisions,albeit heavy, sometimes up to 60000 men like the one of Artabazus which escorted Xerxes North after the sea- battle of Salamis.
        As I can see you don’t know how the falanx operated,and that the Greek falanx was structured and how it was operating,its superior skill in spear wielding and fighting on individual and group level,at that time the best in the mediterranean basin,along with the density of athletics and military training in every prominent city state of Greece with the Spartans standing apart due to the completely proffessional military and the the daily marches and falanx combat exercises on daily basis.

    • Hazarpatish says:

      Although a while has passed, I feel it is appropriate to post the exact quote by Herdotus: “The two armies fought together on the plain of Marathon for a length of time; and in the mid battle, where the Persians themselves and the Sacae had their place, the barbarians were victorious, and broke and pursued the Greeks into the inner country; but on the two wings the Athenians and the Plataeans defeated the enemy”.

      Unless my English is fundamentally wrong, I see no reference to any retreat in good order.

      • J.Merkatatis says:

        I shall remind you that understand and analyse Ancient Greek very well,especially Attic Greek in which Herodotus writes.Ancient Greek is the most articulate language in the world especially in its mechanics,grammar and syntax;it is also definately richer in vocabulary and structural formations than any of the languages that attempt to translate Ancient Greek,wich causes a certain inexactitude,the headacke of translators with major example the Bible…
        I will deal with what you write about,not so much about your English but about the way you see the translation of Herodotus,in the very near future since I am very busy right now, and of course any translation must take into account certain common sense.

      • Hazarpatish says:

        Every single translation of Herodotus I have ever seen speaks of the Greek center being broken.

        Unless you, of course, want to dismiss all non-Greeks as idiots.

  9. John Merkatatis says:

    Some more about Marathon and such things tomorrow.

  10. John Merkatatis says:

    Jim,if you are adressing me,in the country I am now there are no English language libraries worth the name so I can’t get your book “The First Clash” ,but if it is about Marathon,it was not the first clash;Herodotus aside, I think that the first clash must have been Pelusium (525 BC-Cambyses campaign against Egypt) but then the hoplites were NOT the army but a small mercenary contingent.

    • Hazarpatish says:

      The first clash with hoplites likely occured either at Thymbra (where a large proportion of the Lydian force may have been hoplite style troops) or when subduing Ionia.

  11. kevin says:

    To lighten the mood a little.
    A Marathon Recreation showing the Stadia run!:

    By the way the book Marathon By Gentz is worth a read new data, new’history’ new facts.
    I hope all of you enjoy it. (No affiliation).

    I’m interested in the is battle but dont have time to read all of your to and fro which is a shame.

  12. Hazarpatish says:

    I know very well how a phalanx operated, and I can tell you – it was just an unconventionally deep shieldwall.

    Superior skill? What superior skill can barely drilled, home-trained (if at all) militiamen have to experienced, trained veterans? The main advantage the Greeks had was depth, and a bit longer spears.

    Also, you make the assumption that the force that withdrew with Xerxes from Attica (more than half of it) was a single unit. A fundamental flaw in your reasoning. We have tablets from Babylon and Persepolis clearly defining a decimal organization. 60 thousand men would equal 60 hazarbama (something roughly equal to Cohors Millaria).

    • John Merkatatis says:

      In military language Hazarpatish divisions or brigates are the main units of the army,of course they have smaller subdivisions,for admin purposes,but
      the army,when we speak about the field(tactics) moves and manoevres on the command given to its main units by the high command and the main units take care of their component parts be those called battalions,regiments,Cohorts,Moras or what have you…so your remark is
      is lack of understanding as to the word ‘division’
      One more point to make Hazarpatish:I just wish to ask if you have decided to turn abusive? I just received an alert in my e-mail flaging your comment which is very offensive “eastern military systems my ass ” and just above you call me ‘ignorant’ this is an unpardonable breach of etickette
      and a show of bad manners!first I demand an apology-and a small remark here:if you don’t like the term “Eastern military Systems” pass your ‘profane’ remarks to Erick Mauraise author of “Introduction to Military History” through the Swiss Army Directorate of Historical Studies send them your complaint about the “silly” authors they have to even dare write something mr Hazarpatish doesn’t appreciate because itv contrasts with his history outlook and wait for the answer!to add salt to injury,this view,as one can easily find out is shared by an overwhelming number of Institutions including the English and the other side of the Atlantic.
      Do you teach in some Institution or other that after years of research you can hold so strong views?

      • John Merkatatis says:

        What has Pydna got to do with it,and the Romans???

      • Hazarpatish says:

        Pydna? The fact that 99.9 if not more of the casualties came during the rout.

      • Hazarpatish says:


      • Hazarpatish says:

        Finally, about “eastern” and “western” military systems…

        It is a modern view, I repeat, a modern, highly biased view. I have only seen it be applied by authors who think the Persian army was a mob of conscripted peasants.

        Tactics differ? Hardly. Unless you want to call the Macedonian army of Philip and Alexander an eastern one. Before you go into the whole “oh, but they were free-er and they were trained and they were disciplined”. Well, the Achaemenid troops were too. Including the majority of the “levies” (who were in fact soldiers trained in the way that fitted the local infrastructure, like the Egyptians and Assyrians, who were excellent heavy troops, and Mazaka/Saka Tigrakhauda, who were excellent heavy cavalry, not to mention Carians, Lycians and all Iranians).

        “Oh, but there’s the fundamental difference of…” you’re going to say. What is the difference then? Yes, the early hoplite phalanx was not like the Persian armies – it was a group of social elites battling other social elites in a semi-ritualized way. But the Macedonian army was tactically the same as any Achaemenid army. It had a large force of spearmen, to hold off enemies in the center, more flexible infantry on the flanks, and the knock-out punch was to be delivered by cavalry, with the support of light infantry. To be honest, I think it was heavily influenced by the “easterners”.

        Finally, if any author can group Persia, India, China and the Eurasian steppe into a single entity, they need to be put into a mental institution. Or simply look beyond the Graeco-centric world view that is still persistent today (although I must gladly say, that among more respected scholars it is starting to fade away).

        P.S. Now that my profanity has drawn your attention, I sincerely apologize for using it.

  13. John Merkatatis says:

    I)Thanks for the apology,which is accepted,
    2) Now that I know what you don’t know (rather important-you will see)
    I will tackle the subject from another angle and I will site for you any authorities on the subject that you might be able to consult or verify.
    When you talk about systems,it is obviously a later view from the actual event;at the time of the event we speak about ‘modus operandi’
    not ‘systems’ example:Cyrus attacks Croesus of Lydia,against all war conventions of that time,in full winter achieving total surprise,the dream of every commander,catches Croesus napping so to speak,first chooses the battlefield(naturally) and anihilates the hastilly assembled Lydian army.Tactical manoevre of the First Order,but,not a system.Systems deal with entrenched operational ‘habits’ ie mode of fighting which is one of them,maintained through centuries of practice and approval of the system through success.
    Systems,in radically different geographical regions are basically dictated by a) the nature of the land(mountainous,temperate,desert,etc
    ) and b)climatic conditions(you can’t wear thick woolen tunics when marching in the desert…remember that!)
    Estern Systems:centred in Asia,later and in Africa, includes active not marooned populations-those that Europe has come or would come to contact with;naturally excludes Chinese Japanese and Mongols,the later appearing in the sceen and studied in the context of 13th century AD.
    The land in Asia is characteristic of open spaces and increased temperatures at least during the day;that necessitates the use of horses to cover those distances,and to use as a weapon of war.The climate favours light and comfortable materials for clothing that facilitate fast movement,but it also makes the arrow a very potent missile,as a result we find predominance of what we call missile cavalries that hit and run with the action repeared back and forth until the enemy is demoralised,disorganized,bleeding and ready for slautgher. The defeated enemy runs,the victor has ample means (mobile troops) to follow with a relentless persuit of his enemy.Due to the nature of land war chariots are used extensively even later than in other parts of the world since they remain effective.Locally we see also camel horse and in the east elephants.Land obstacles are few and engineering is well advanced to overcome them.
    Now I have a meeting,I will proceed with all your queeries this evening
    please bear with me,I promise to make it interesting for you.

  14. Kevin says:

    Nice reply. I am enjoying the thread.

  15. JHGlass says:

    New to this forum, not a military/history scholar or authority on any level, but greatly appreciate the topic on many levels. Apart from the heroic/tragic tales of men locked in mortal combat that are the hallmarks of every armed conflict throughout history, I have always enjoyed gaining a greater understanding of the historical, cultural, strategic and deeply human impact warfare imposes on the development and direction of civilizations, understanding fully that we only stand here today to discus this topic because our collective direct descendants throughout history have survived wars as either combatants or collateral. Case in point, in more recent history I owe my very existence to the fact that a GG Grandfather on either side of the conflict, North and South, survived the American Civil War.

    Though I am well acquainted with the actions and outcome of the Battle of Marathon, thank you Jim Lacey all the same for your vivid and dramatic recounting of this event. Thank you also Mr. Hazarpatish and Mr. Merkatatis for your spirited debate while bringing your collective knowledge and personal points of views into the discussion… Feels like you’re fighting the 2nd Battle of Marathon right here in the forum.

    Hats off to all, will look forward to reading future stories/posts!


  16. Dino Kr. says:

    This has been a very interesting discussion about my favorite book of this year. And definitely the best analysis of the Athenian war machine which brought about the Marathon victory.
    Mr. Lacey, thanks for finally putting to print the Marathon story from the view of a military historian. Works by others seem to miss the accomplishments of the Athenian military in the days after Klisthenis’s return after the 508 BC revolution. The Athenian 506 victories over the combined forces of Thebes, Chalkis and the Spartan led Peloponnesian League force are nothing but spectacular, and sadly overlooked. In my view, most historians, Herodotos included, were not military men and it shows in their analysis of events. No military force defeats two others in one day an conducts an amphibious assault after the first with out training, planing and leadership. Not to mention the fact that this same force had just faced off the vaunted Spartans who conveniently chose not to fight. (Must have been religious festival time again. )
    Also, right before Marathon, Athenians forces fight the combined forces of Aigina supported by 1000 Argos volunteers and beat them. Yet, your run of the mill historians ignore all this and claim that Athenians at Marathon were amateurs who beat the hapless Persians because Miltiadis was such a genius.
    This mentality is not derived only from ignorance of military maxims. The Spartan myth of invincibility and the lack of appreciation of Persian sophistication are also at play. Not to mention the fact that Miltiadis was not present during the great Athenian victories, so he could not have been the mastermind of the Athenian military model. Kalimachos on the other hand was probably in all the previous battles and most likely the illusive commander of the 506 campaigns. He is definitely on the short list. But my money is on him.
    In analysis after analysis, the premise is that the Athenians could not have been that good, because the Spartans were better. The Spartan military was good, but in my view a bit overrated. Fighting rebelling helots is not exactly something to brag about. Kleomenis showed some military intellect in defeating the Argos force in 494 BC, but after him, it takes many decades and Persian gold for the Spartans to defeat Athens. Way too many historians and people in the movie and gaming industries are all too eager to perpetuate the Spartan invincibility myth.
    It is wrong to interpret the military defeats at the hands of Greeks as proof that Persia was inferior in war making and even culturally. Persia of the 6th and 5th century was the preeminent power of their day, militarily, financially and in land mass. They didn’t achieve their empire by being backward, or lacking intellect. Their military was good enough to defeat army after army of nation after nation from Lydia, India to Egypt. That is also not happenstance. The army of any nation is tailored to the terrain it has to fight in and defend. The Persian cavalry, archer, light infantry mix had been tailored to fight other forces of that type in similar terrain. Persian armies had faced and defeated hoplite forces before, therefore it was unlikely that the generals of Persia felt threatened or intimidated by Athenians. Their army mix had been good enough to defeat the Greeks of Ionia and also Eretria, just before Marathon. In some way, Persia came to Marathon with the wrong battle doctrine for the situation. Generals tend to do that time and time again. Persian generals used to victory on their terms went with what had worked for them before in no different fashion than US Generals in 60’s Vietnam, or British Generals in the Revolutionary war.
    The Athenians won, because they fought on their terms, on terrain that suited their battle plan and doctrine, and not the plan of their enemy. Not because their “western ways” were better than “eastern” ones. The argument is flawed and too simplistic. I refuse to be draw in to it. The Greeks and Persians of the 5th century have little in common with the current nationalities and east/west differences.
    I visited Marathon as a child in the mid sixties. It was less populated then, and to be honest, not very impressive. But now I find it the most fascinating place I have visited and wish I had more memory of it than a beach and a “pile of dirt”.
    Prof. Lacey, thanks for your work. I recommend it as the defining work on the subject.

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