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.

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