In the summer of 490 fleet of 600 trireme vessels, sent by King Darius I and commanded by BC a Persian his experienced Median admiral Datis, set out from Ionia with an army of 25,000 men—light infantry, cavalry and archers—bound for the Greek mainland. The objective was to subdue Athens and install an allied regime under the exiled Greek tyrant Hippias. Datis landed his force on the plains of Marathon, 25 miles from Athens.
The Greek commander Miltiades soon learned of the Persian landing and marched his 10,000-hoplite heavy infantry from Athens to block the enemy advance. The road to Marathon threaded a narrow valley that debouched on the plains. Although Datis’ troops had disembarked days earlier, they had made no effort to secure the road. Miltiades deployed his hoplites around the valley mouth, anchoring the flanks on the hills to either side, as the Greek phalanx formation was vulnerable to envelopment by the Persian cavalry. But Datis’ infantry line spanned the width of the plain, impeding the Persian cavalry and rendering them irrelevant.
With the road to Athens blocked, the Persians had two choices: Engage the Greek army or re-embark and land at another location. But the Greeks would almost certainly be ready and waiting for the Persians wherever they chose to land. Battle it would be.
The Greek infantry, lacking archers or cavalry, ultimately stepped off toward the Persians, whose archers fired volleys of arrows into the advancing hoplite ranks. Miltiades had weakened his center to strengthen each wing, sacrificing tactical depth to lessen the risk of being flanked. When the Greeks closed within 200 yards of the Persian line, he gave the order to attack on the run. The Persian infantry met the attack and pressed the Greek center steadily back. The hoplites retreated a fair distance before their commanders rallied them to a counterattack; at the same time the reinforced wings pivoted inward, enveloping the Persian flanks. Hemmed in on three sides, the Persians broke, fled for the beach and re-embarked on their ships. They left behind 6,400 dead, while the Athenians lost only 192 men. In history’s first “marathon,” Miltiades dispatched a runner to Athens to report the great victory.
Datis, meanwhile, decided to sail on and attack Athens, but Miltiades and his hoplites conducted a night march back to Athens and were waiting for the Persians. Finding Miltiades’ army arrayed on the heights above the city, Datis ordered his fleet about and returned to Ionia.
Greece was spared—for the moment.
Choose the terrain, not just the battlefield. Datis arrived first, but Miltiades secured the road to Athens and a strong defensive position.
Don’t bring a gun to a knife fight. Datis relied on his formidable cavalry, only to discover he couldn’t use it.
Respect your enemy. Datis chose to battle the strongest heavy infantry in the ancient world yet fielded primarily light infantry. The result was a disaster for the Persians.
It ain’t over till it’s over. Miltiades sent a runner to report his victory but then hustled his troops back to protect Athens after the battle.
Maintain one’s strategic focus. Miltiades understood that victory at Marathon was only a means to protecting Athens and not an end in itself.
To the last man. Miltiades allowed most of the defeated Persian soldiers to reach their ships and flee to fight again—literally the next day.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.