The conventional wisdom is that the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon were amateur soldiers who won by chance. In reality, they were the Israel Defense Force of their day—smart, highly trained, and merciless.
Before dawn on September 12, 490 formed for an assault on the Persian force that had assembled on the Marathon plain, 26 miles northeast of Athens. At the sound of a single trumpet the BC, 10,000 Athenian hoplites Athenian advance began. Eight men deep on the flanks and four deep in the center, the phalanx of bristling spear points and blazing shields began its slow, inexorable march toward the enemy. Picking up the pace, first to a fast walk and then to a trot, the hoplites closed on their enemies at what must have seemed a dazzling speed to the waiting Persians. At 600 yards the mass of men began their fierce and nerve-shattering battle cry—Alleeee! Hastily, the Persian commanders aligned their troops. Men holding wicker shields went to the front as thousands of archers moved behind them.
The Persians showed no panic. They were professional soldiers, victors of a hundred bloody battles. In another moment archers would release tens of thousands of deadly bolts into the sky. The spearmen would wait for the arrows to decimate their foes and then advance to slaughter the shattered remnants.
But the Persians had never faced an army like this one. Athenian hoplites learned the art of war in contests against other hoplites, and their kind of war was not decided by a hail of arrows. It was settled by a collision of plated shields and deadly iron-tipped spears, wielded by heavily armored men. It was a horrible and terrifying confrontation of pushing, screaming, half-crazed men who gouged, stabbed, and kicked until one side could bear the agony no longer and broke. The victors would then launch a murderous pursuit of their defeated foes, bloodlust propelling them forward.
That was the war descending upon the Persians, and it arrived at almost incomprehensible speed, for at 200 yards the Athenians began to sprint. The Persian archers let fly, but to no effect. Never having faced such a rapid advance, they mistimed their shots; most of the arrows flew harmlessly over the charging hoplites. The archers quickly tried to reload as their shield-bearers uneasily inched backward; 10,000 metal-encased killers were almost upon them.
The archers were too late. In a shuddering instant, hoplites smashed into the lightly protected Persians and convulsed their defensive line. Then the killing began.
This scene is from the Battle of Marathon 2,500 years ago, when a mostly Athenian army crushed a veteran Persian force three times its size. Historians have rated the victory by Athens one of the great miracles of military history, as a mob of armed farmers and merchants, all relative amateurs at war, beat a professional army that had honed its skills crushing revolts in Ionia, a region of Greek settlements on the western coast of Asia Minor.
Peter Krentz points out in his recent book on Marathon, “In 506 [only a decade and a half before Marathon] the Athenians did not have a particularly distinguished record as fighters.” Krentz’s analysis follows a tradition that began with the great Victorian Age historians R. W. Macan and J. R. Munro who, in making good use of hindsight, viewed hoplite warfare as superior to the Persian methods of fighting but did not consider the Athenians great practitioners of the military arts. Most modern historians repeat the error, referring to the Athenians at Marathon as, for example, a “hastily assembled militia, not superior to the army of any other city-state.”
In reality, Athens was the Israel of its day. For almost two generations it had been surrounded by mercurial allies and outright enemies—Thebes, Sparta, Corinth, among others—and faced almost constant strife. Over that time, its hoplite class became the most formidable infantry force in Greece. Its victory at Marathon should surprise no one.
The Athenian victory at Marathon had its roots in the city-state’s regime change in 546 decades before the battle—when the tyrant Pisi- stratus seized power. During his subsequent 17-year rule, he remade the Athenian economy, breaking BC—seven up the nobles’ great estates and dispersing them among common laborers in return for a tenth of their produce in taxes. The levy was a light burden to men who previously had nothing, but it did much to strengthen Athens’s finances. More important, at a stroke Pisistratus created a yeoman class that would one day serve as hoplites in the Athenian battle line.
Through Pisistratus’s private holdings, Athens controlled silver mines in Thrace, to which it added the silver from the mines at Laurion, just southeast of Athens. Pisistratus spent liberally, financing farmers and an extensive building program that ignited rapid economic growth in true Keynesian style. Finally, he moved the farmers of Attica (the region of Greece in which most Athenians lived) from grain to olive production. Since olive oil was a commodity in high demand throughout the ancient world, Athens could trade for all the wheat it required, while also earning a substantial profit. Olive trading combined with a stable silver-based currency—the famous Athenian “owls”—soon made Athens the strongest commercial power in Greece, one that could finance a substantial army.
Pisistratus, a brilliant diplomat, maintained peace with his neighbors throughout his reign. His successors, despite their best efforts, were not as successful. In 519 BC, Plataea, a small city-state just north of Attica and on the southern edge of Boeotia, came under heavy pressure to submit to Theban rule. Desperate to avoid this fate, its leaders turned to Sparta for help. Seeing a chance to make trouble for Athens, the Spartans advised the Plataeans to seek protection from the Athenians, who agreed. With this clever piece of diplomacy, Sparta placed its two most dangerous rivals, Athens and Thebes, at each other’s throats.
Hearing of the new alliance, Theban hoplites immediately set out to conquer Plataea. The Athenians marched to meet them. Despite Corinth’s attempt to mediate, the two sides clashed. The Athenians were caught unprepared, but they soon rallied and won decisively enough to extend their borders into Boeotia. Unfortunately the only source to describe this battle, Herodotus, sheds little light on its course. However, the scanty details are still crucial to understanding the outcome of the Battle of Marathon, almost 30 years later. First, this attack turned the Plataeans into firm allies of Athens, which explains why they sent 1,000 hoplites to fight at Marathon. As important, this is the first evidence that Athenian hoplites had lost little, if any, of their military effectiveness during the long peace of Pisistratus. The Theban army, after all, was not a force that could be easily dismissed or vanquished. Just a year before this battle, at the 520 BC Battle of Ceressus, Thebes had decisively defeated Thessaly, previously the strongest power in Greece.
That experience laid the foundation for the Athenian success at Marathon. The Plataea battle took place at most 29 years earlier, so a 20-year-old hoplite fighting his first battle there would not yet have been 50 at the time of Marathon. Since an Athenian citizen could be drafted for military service until age 60, one can assume that some veterans of this battle were still in the fighting line at Marathon. At the very least, most of the Athenian generals at that battle, including the polemarch (overall commander), were almost certainly present at Plataea. Commanders with 30 years experience in war surely must have provided a steadying influence at Marathon.
For most of the decade following the clash with the Thebans, from 519 to 508 BC, Athens’s military might was weakened as three factions vied for political power. At one point, a new tyrant, Isagoras, apparently confiscated all hoplite arms and demobilized the army in favor of mercenaries. Isagoras overplayed his hand, however, when he invited the Spartans to help establish his rule on a more permanent basis. Trapped on top of the Acropolis by an angry people’s army, 300 Spartans were forced to accept a humiliating surrender, handing over their weapons in return for their freedom. Isagoras escaped with them, although all of his followers were executed.
Isagoras’s fall opened the door for one of Athens’s more remarkable rulers—Cleisthenes. Over the next few years, he remade Athens’s political institutions. He created 10 tribes and enrolled all of the free inhabitants of Attica, along with resident aliens and even freed slaves. This new political arrangement profoundly influenced the organization and battle doctrine of the Athenian army. Each tribe was required to contribute one regiment of hoplites and a cavalry squadron for the common defense. In turn, each tribal regiment elected a general, or strategos, of its own annually. The 10 reputedly rotated command of the entire army daily, although the polemarch remained the overall leader. Though not quite matched man-for-man with the Spartans, the Athenians at the time could field possibly two times as many hoplites.
But while Athens remade itself, the Spartans, still burning with the humiliation of the Acropolis disaster, prepared their revenge.
Sparta, of course, knew it couldn’t stand alone against the Athenians. In autumn 508, it ordered the entire levy of its allies in the Peloponnesian League (consisting mostly of the city-states in the Peloponnesus, including mighty Corinth, but notably excluding Argos) to assemble for a spring campaign. It also sent envoys to recruit other Greek cities to join a great crusade against Athens, an objective the Spartans apparently kept secret from some of their own Peloponnesian allies, who would have balked at taking on the fearsome Athenians. Thebes, still smarting from its manhandling by Athens a dozen years before, had rebuilt its military forces and was eager to join. The Chalcidians, sensing an easy victory and rich spoils, offered to contribute their few thousand hoplites.
In the spring of 507, the Spartan army marched, joined by the full might of the Peloponnesian League. Simultaneously, Thebans invaded Attica from the north and seized several frontier towns, while the Chalcidians marched into Attica from the northeast. Neither the Thebans nor the Chalcidians felt in much danger, since the Athenian army had massed in the west against the main threat—Sparta. The Peloponnesian army got as far as Eleusis, where it did some damage, then halted. Before them, the Athenians, ignoring the Theban army that was ravaging their northern frontier, lined the ridge separating the Thriasian Plain from the Plain of Athens, about halfway between Eleusis and Athens. If the Athenians could not halt the Spartans along this line, Athens would fall.
Heavily outnumbered, the ranks of Athenian hoplites waited for the assault. They could not have felt good about their chances, but they were prepared to offer stout resistance. And then, to the Athenian hoplites’ amazement, something of a miracle took place. Without a fight, the Peloponnesian army began to break up and march home. According to Herodotus, when the Corinthians learned they were to make war against Athens they first hesitated and then refused. With that, Sparta’s two kings quarreled over continuing the invasion. When the rest of Sparta’s allies witnessed the Corinthians marching home and learned that the Spartan kings were feuding, they too began to break camp and march away. Since the Athenians held a strong position, even the Spartans hesitated to attempt an assault alone. They also returned home.
With their primary foe in retreat, the Athenians turned with a vengeance on the forces attacking Attica from the northeast. We have few details of the fighting; Herodotus tells us only that vast numbers of Thebans were slaughtered, with 700 taken alive. After mauling the Theban army, the Athenians, apparently on the same day, crossed over to the island of Euboea, and routed the Chalcidian army.
Herodotus’s spare account of these battles offers more insights into the Athenian victory at Marathon. First, it provides one more counter to the widespread contention that the Athenians were amateurs in war. Without allies they stood alone against the Peloponnesian League. Whatever their qualms, they did not waver and their courage did not fail. Athens’s hoplites were fully prepared to follow the Spartan poet’s advice, “to bite their lips and hold,” no matter what force they faced.
Indeed, one can safely assume the Athenians had recognized the growing threat from Sparta and spent many months preparing for war. The veterans who had fought and defeated Thebes a decade earlier knew hoplite warfare and would have taken the lead. They trained with the strength and determination of desperate men. By spring there could not have been much real difference between the quality of the Athenian army and the Spartans. If the Athenian force had given any impression it was not ready or less than fully professional, the Spartans would have attacked. Their display was surely a factor in motivating the Corinthians to back down and the Spartans to abandon the field.
The Athenians’ rout of the Theban and Chalcidian armies adds even more weight to the argument that they were more than simple farmers dressed as soldiers. With the Spartans out of the fight, the soldiers of Athens marched across Attica’s breadth and assaulted a well-trained and disciplined Theban army. It appears they even denied themselves a prebattle rest and attacked straight from the march. Then, again without pause, the exhausted Athenians continued to the coast, boarded ships, made an amphibious landing, and engaged in another major battle against the Chalcidians. Could an army that stared down the massed might of the Peloponnesian League and then undertook a forced march across Attica to defeat two more enemy armies be made up of amateurs who swapped their plows for swords only when faced with a dire threat?
Despite its devastating defeat, Thebes continued the war. In 506 BC, its leaders asked the Aeginetans, longstanding enemies of Athens, for assistance, but they received only sacred images that were supposed to aid them in battle. Nonetheless inspired by the images, the Theban army, with its Boeotian allies, marched once more against Athens. Again, Herodotus presents us with no details except to say that the Thebans were roughly handled.
Eventually the Aeginetans sent their fleet against the Attic coast, burning to the ground the port at Phaleron, just south of Athens, and damaging many coastal areas. Despite a warning from the Delphi Oracle to postpone vengeance, the Athenians turned viciously on Aegina. Herodotus is silent about the course of this war, except to mention that 1,000 hoplites from Argos joined the Aeginetans and that few of them ever returned. Clearly the Aeginetans and these Argive allies had met with disaster at the hands of Athens.
The final and most persuasive evidence of Athenian martial prowess comes from the Battle of Marathon itself. Just 10,000 Athenian hoplites faced the roughly 30,000 men dispatched by the Persian ruler Darius I. Only an army sure of its abilities would have even dared to make a frontal assault on such a superior enemy. Breaking with the tradition of the standard depth of eight hoplites across the entire phalanx, the Athenians thinned their center by half so as to place more weight on their flanks. As planned, the Athenian flanks smashed the enemy line to their front and began to pursue the routed Persians. In the meantime the Athenian center was heavily pressed and in danger of being swept away.
At this crucial moment the Athenians did something impossible—impossible, at least, for a mass of unprofessional rustics. Callimachus, the Athenian commander, seeing the Persian left routed, ordered bugles blown. Instantly, the Athenian right flank halted. For a moment the killing stopped, as the Athenians reordered their ranks and turned 90 degrees. On the other flank another bugle was blown, and here too Athenians and their Plataean allies quickly began to reform their ranks and turn toward the center of the battlefield. The jaws of their trap snapped shut on the Persian center, killing the vast majority of that army’s elite force. When the battle ended, the Greeks had lost 192 men, the Persians 6,400.
The skill with which the Athenians set and sprang their trap is undeniable. Such sophisticated movements could only be executed by a professional force as part of a plan; the men were clearly prepared to change directions when the order came. Moreover, such maneuvers required an iron combat discipline found only in veteran units. If the Athenians at Marathon had not spent the last few decades in a constant state of war readiness, they surely would have been annihilated that September day 2,500 years ago.
Originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.