SearchSeptember 12, 490 BCE: Remembering The Battle of Marathon On The 2,506th Anniversary

September 12, 490 BCE: Remembering The Battle of Marathon On The 2,506th Anniversary...
forbes.com 12/09/2016 History

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By Sarah E. Bond , an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. For more on ancient and medieval history, follow her @SarahEBond.
September 12th is the traditional date for the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE , an epic struggle between the Greeks and the Persians. For help with this reconstruction, I spoke to Thomas Rose, a professor in the Classics department at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who lived at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and has completed the Athens Classic Marathon (a race which harkens back to the battle events). We discussed the ways in which we reconstruct ancient battles and what it meant to the Greek city states to claim victory over the Persian forces on the plain at Marathon that day.
Dating:
Although astronomers have tried to move the date a full month earlier–to August 12–Prof. Rose noted that, “precise dating is impossible, but the battle was fought around the time of the full moon in either August or September.” The Athenians commemorated the victory on 6 Boedromion (Plut. Cam. 19; Mor. 349F), a day that would normally fall in our September.
Ancient calendars and discrepancies within the classical sources make a definitive timeline difficult, but the arguments over the dates do demonstrate the import of astronomy to ancient civilizations. What I have tried to do below is give the best estimate of the timeline that can be made, but please remember that this is an educated conjecture.
Troops
The Persian King Darius had sent the generals Hippias, Datis and Artaphernes to defeat the Greek city states that had earlier supported the Greek uprisings in the area of Ionia in modern-day Turkey. The Persians had about 20,000-30,000 troops, versus the Athenians and Plataeans, who had about 10,000 in their phalanx, notably made up of both citizen-soldiers and slaves.
Alleged helmet and skull from a deceased soldier at the Battle of Marathon (Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, photo taken by the author).

* * * Ancient Sources:
We have no first-hand account of the battle (although the tragedian Aeschylus did notably fight in it), but we do have the words of the historian Herodotus (Histories 6.94-140), an Ionian Greek that published the account as many as 50 years after the Battle of Marathon occurred. Other historical sources include Cornelius Nepos, a historian from Gaul who died during the reign of Augustus, and a poet named Lucian (2nd century CE). We also have the Greek biographer Plutarch, who lived in the early imperial period (c.50-120 CE), and the 10th century Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda.
Battle Timeline:
September 2: The Athenian runner-courier-soldier Pheidippides is sent to Sparta from Athens–a distance of about 150 miles.

The polis of Athens was about a 150 mile run from the Lacedaemonian city of Sparta, making Pheidippides a very long-distance runner indeed.

* * * September 3: Pheidippides likely reaches Sparta and entreats the Lacedaemonians to help Athens, lest the city be enslaved to Persia. Sparta refuses to do so (according to religious laws for the month of Karneios or maybe just because they didn’t want to) until the full moon. Pheidippides presumably then runs back to Athens with the message that Sparta will send troops once the full moon allows them to, in six days.
September 4-5: Possible return day of Pheidippides. Athenian troops march to Marathon to wait for the full moon–and to stall until Spartan help can arrive. In the meantime, troops from Plataea arrive to help. Phalanx battles are best fought on a flat plain–as Marathon had–since the formation relies on brute, collective pushing. This played to the strength of the Greek forces, but the site had been determined largely by the Athenian tyrant Hippias, who had told the Persians the plain would be a good place for their cavalry.
September 9: A full moon
September 10: Sparta begins the march for Marathon
September 12: Most common date for the battle itself, at least since August Boeckh’s 1855 reconstruction of the events.
ca.6:00-6:30 a.m.: Just before sunrise, a favorable omen is received by Miltiades, the Athenian commander, and he takes this as a sign to start the battle.
On the Persian side, some of the Persian infantry and much of their cavalry may have been divided at this point and then sent on ships towards Phaleron. As Prof. Rose points out, Herodotus says that the Persians hoped “to arrive at the city of Athens before the Athenians could march there.” This means that only about half the Persian troops remained at Marathon and thus the Athenians needed to strike while the iron was hot and the Persian numbers were decreased.
6:30 a.m.: Athenian troops initially rush in a phalanx double-march for 8 stades (1.7 km) at the Persian forces, working hard to avoid being hit by the famed Persian archers raining arrows down.
6:30-10:00 a.m.: The battle lasted about three to four hours. The center of the phalanx was kept weak, so that as the Persian forces pushed through the center, the wings of the Greeks could wrap themselves around the troops and encompass them. The Persians are defeated and suffer 6,400 casualties. Rose notes that “According to Herodotus (6.117), less than 200 Greeks lost their lives at Marathon. They were afforded the signal honor of burial on the field of battle. The Athens Classic Marathon course loops around the burial mound built over their mass grave.”

Map of the battle lines for the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). Map made by the author using the Ancient World Mapping Center’s Antiquity a la Carte.

* * * 10:00 a.m.-unknown: A signal is sent to the remaining Persian ships, telling them to alert the forces at Phaleron of the outcome of the battle. In response, an Athenian runner may have been dispatched to Athens, 26 miles away, to inform the leadership there of the Greek victory. Accounts conflict as to who this runner was. It may have been a man named Philippides [Φιλιππίδης] (according to the rather weak source Lucian, Pro Lapsu inter Salutandum, 3), whom Lucian may be confusing with the aforementioned Pheidippides. However, Plutarch notes that there was a different runner, ”Eucles who ran in full armour, hot from the battle and, bursting in at the doors of the first men of the State, could only say, “Hail! we are victorious!” (De gloria Atheniensium, 3). If it was Pheidippides, he would have run around 326 miles in the span of nine days and fought in battle–and thus it seems unlikely he was the runner sent.
Late morning to early afternoon: A small group of Athenians stays under the command of Aristides. The rest of the Athenians make the seven hour march back to Athens. Plutarch says (in agreement with Herodotus) that, “When the Athenians had routed the Barbarians [Persians] and driven them aboard their ships, and saw that they were sailing away, not toward the islands, but into the gulf toward Attica under compulsion of wind and wave, then they were afraid lest the enemy find Athens empty of defenders, and so they hastened homeward with nine tribes, and reached the city that very day” (Arist. 5). It has been alternately suggested that the march happened the next day, but it seems most probable that the Athenians marched there as soon as possible after the battle that day and then were able to head off the Persians, whose remaining forces ultimately chose to sail back home when it became clear they could not take the city.
September 13: The Spartans reach the plain at Marathon–one day too late, but when they do show up, they agree that the victory of the Athenians and Plataeans was truly exceptional.
Two burial mounds were eventually constructed on the plain, one for the deceased Athenians (called “the Soros”) and another one, further to the west, for the Plataeans. A number of epigrams were written to commemorate the victory, which ultimately showed the Greeks that the Persians could be defeated; a memory they would need just a few years later, when the Persians returned. The travel writer Pausanias later noted, “On the plain is the grave of the Athenians, and upon it are slabs giving the names of the killed according to their tribes; and there is another grave for the Boeotian Plataeans and for the slaves, for slaves fought then for the first time by the side of their masters” (1.32.3).
1879: Robert Browning writes the poem “Pheidippides” commemorating the runner as the one who ran to Athens from Marathon. This was a romantic and widely-read poem that inspired the later Olympic race.
March 10, 1896: The first modern Marathon race is run from Marathon to Athens. Charilaos Vasilakos wins. He completed the course in 3 hours and 18 min.
By Sarah Bond , Contributor
I am an Assistant Professor in the Classics Department at the University of Iowa. I am interested in Roman, late antique, and early medieval history, archaeology, topography and GIS, Digital Humanities, and the role of Classics in pop culture (e.g., Game of Thrones). I obtained a BA in Classics and History with a minor in Classical Archaeology from the University of Virginia (2005). My PhD is in Ancient History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2011). My book, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professionals in the Roman Mediterranean, is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press (Fall, 2016) and looks at the lives of marginalized tradesmen like gravediggers and tanners. Follow me on Twitter @SarahEBond, read my Blog, or email me at sarah-bond@uiowa.edu .
The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
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