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The Battle of Marathon Saved Western Civilization 2,500 Years Ago

Battle Marathon
A 5th century BC kylix in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens depicting a battle during the Grec-Persian Wars. Credit: Public Domain

It was in September of the year 490 BC when, just 42 kilometers (26 miles) outside of Athens, a vastly-outnumbered army of brave soldiers saved their city from the invading Persian army in the Battle of Marathon.

But as the course of history shows, in the Battle of Marathon they saved more than just their own city: they saved Athenian democracy itself, and consequently, protected the course of western civilization.

According to historian Richard Billows and his well-researched book Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization, in one single day in 490 BC, the Athenian army under General Miltiades changed the course of civilization.

It is very unlikely that world civilization would be the same today if the Persians had defeated the Athenians at Marathon. The mighty army of Darius I would have conquered Athens and established Persian rule there, putting an end to the newborn Athenian democracy of Pericles.

In effect, this would certainly have destroyed the idea of democracy as it had developed in Athens at the time.

Persia was the most powerful empire at the time, ruling all of Asia Minor and pushing into the West. The army of King Darius I was feared by all the other peoples living in the Near East and the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the Ionians revolted against the Persian rulers.

When the Athenians and Eretrians came to the Ionians’ aid, they managed to capture and burn the city of Sardis, infuriating Darius I. According to the historian Herodotus, every night, the powerful king had a servant remind him after dinner, “Remember the Athenians.”

The Persian conqueror was determined to burn the great city-state of Athens to the ground.

The famed Battle of Marathon only lasted two hours

Commanded by the generals Datis and Artaphernes, the mighty Persian army sailed to Greece. With six hundred triremes carrying as many as thirty thousand soldiers, it was the largest amphibious invasion the world had known until that time.

The Persians captured Eretria first and then moved south to threaten Athens.

The outnumbered Athenians, estimated to be only ten thousand men, with the help of a few Plataeans, took to the foothills of Marathon. They chose the alternately mountainous and marshy terrain in order to prevent the famous Persian cavalry from joining the battle there.

The Athenian army under General Miltiades consisted almost entirely of hoplites in bronze armor, using primarily spears and large bronze shields. They fought in tight formations called phalanxes, and literally slaughtered the lightly-clad Persian infantry in close combat.

The hoplite style of fighting would go on to epitomize ancient Greek warfare.

The Athenian general reinforced his flanks, luring the enemy’s best fighters into his center, completely enveloping the Persian armies. The Battle of Marathon lasted only two hours, ending with the Persian army breaking in panic towards their ships and with the Athenians continuing to slay them as they fled.

In his book, however, Billows calls the Battle of Marathon a “miraculous victory” for the Greeks. The victory was not as easy as it is often portrayed by many historians. After all, the Persian army had never before been defeated.

According to Billow’s research, the Athenians actually had a hard time maintaining the center of the battle.

The British historian argues that the empowering sense of democracy that the Athenians enjoyed could explain the great victory they claimed at Marathon.

As opposed to the Persians, Athenians actually saw themselves as participating members of their society, and the army was egalitarian. Each soldier was fighting to protect his home, his community, and what he viewed as his own state, so he fought at his own expense, paying for his armor, weapons, and upkeep.

Billows also writes that the story of Pheidippides, who is remembered for running the forty-two or so kilometers from Marathon to Athens (inspiring the Marathon runs of the future) to announce the great victory, is actually quite different.

Instead, when the Persian army arrived, Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta to ask for Spartan help, and then he ran all the way back, a total distance of 435 kilometers (280 miles).

However, the city-state of Sparta was in the middle of celebrating a religious festival, the Carneia, and their laws dictated that they could only send military help after the full moon had passed.

Billows’ research shows that it was the whole Athenian army itself which actually made the run from Marathon to Athens. Without that, he argues, the invading Persian fleet could have swept into an unguarded Athens, and despite the Athenians’ winning of the battle of Marathon, they could have then gone on to lose the war.

The defeat at Marathon marked the end of the first Persian invasion of Greece, as the hitherto-undefeated forces of Darius I retreated in ignominy back into Asia.

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