The first of the Greco-Persian Wars, the Battle of Marathon, was fought approximately 490 BCE on a plain in Marathon, Greece. The Greeks (Athenians and Plataeans) were led by the general Miltiades, and the Persians were led by Datis and Artaphernes. At dawn, Miltiades and his men, the hoplites, ran two kilometers to meet their enemy.
The Persian Empire was the most impressive empire at the time. It spanned the area between Egypt and India and had a population of approximately 35-50 million people, all ruled by a secluded monarch. To gain authority, the empire respected non-Persian traditions; the leaders knew that forcing assimilation to Persian culture would incite revolution in the people. Therefore, the empire consisted of many different languages and cultures. Herodotus said, “There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs. They have taken the dress of the Medes and in war they wear the Egyptian breastplate. As soon as they hear of any luxury, they instantly make it their own.”
The Classical Greeks were the antithesis of the Persian Empire. Because of the mountainous terrain, populations were sporadic and separate. These groups formed fiercely independent and politically active city-states which frequently engaged in combat with their neighbors. The Greeks did have some unifying factors: language, gods of worship, and the Olympic Games every four years, but these were not enough to quell the political rivalries between the larger city-states. These Hellenes were expansive people due to their nature and growing populations, yet they didn’t conquer other lands; they settled in them.
The Greek army consisted of Athenians and Plataeans. The Athenians had assisted Ionia in its rebellion against the Persian empire which sparked the Greco-Persian Wars. The Plataeans came to the Athenians’ aid because they were subjects of Athens and felt loyalty to its citizens. The Athenians had “often in the past spared no effort on Plataea’s behalf” (Herodotus).
The Greeks won this battle as well as the others because of the strategy implemented and the superiority of their armor. They fought in a phalanx, parallel lines of soldiers (hoplites) closely packed together. The soldiers wore breastplates, tunics, and greaves (metal shin guards), and carried a hoplon (a large round shield). These shields covered the carrier’s left side and the right side of the person next to him. In their right hands, the hoplites carried long spears (in the first stage of battle) and swords (in the second stage).
In this particular battle, Miltiades reinforced the sides of his phalanx and left the middle weak. This allowed the phalanx to fold in on the Persian army and encompass them. The Persians suffered heavy losses, while the Greeks had a minor number of casualties.
Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
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Shumate, Johnny. Greek Hoplite. (http://www.ancient.eu/image/152/)