The Battle of Marathon | Eyewitness Account From Herodotus [ 490 BC ]

The mighty Persian Empire quickly developed into a powerful nation that had successfully been conquering other countries and territories prior to an assault leading up the coast of Greece at Marathon located approximately forty miles from Athens in 490 BC.

In today’s post, we will discuss the Battle of Marathon and reading Herodotus’ account of the fighting between the Athenians and Persian armies. Miliades led his army of ten-thousand Athenians and one-thousand Plataeans against fifteen-thousand Persian troops. According to the editors of Britannica in their article titled Battle of Marathon: Greek History, the Athenian generals were undecided on whether they should launch an attack or wait until the invaders attacked them.

“Battle of Marathon, (September 490 BCE), in the Greco-Persian Wars, decisive battle fought on the Marathon plain of northeastern Attica in which the Athenians, in a single afternoon, repulsed the first Persian invasion of Greece.

Command of the hastily assembled Athenian army was vested in 10 generals, each of whom was to hold operational command for one day. The generals were evenly divided on whether to await the Persians or to attack them, and the tie was broken by a civil official, Callimachus, who decided in favour of an attack. Four of the generals then ceded their commands to the Athenian general Miltiades, thus effectively making him commander in chief.”

Countless revolts and rebellions continued to take raise took during the rule of King Darius the Great. The Persian Empire faced opposition from the dissent of people under subjugation by the Persians. The province known as Ionia near Anatolia was a region that decided to rebel with the assistance of the Greek city-state of Athens. They had been told the Athenians would help during this time when Ionia needed help against the Persians. This did not bode well for the Greeks because it would not be long before the Ionian rebellion was crushed to nothing by the Persian Army.  King Darius was not pleased and moved to anger by the interference from the Greeks. They planned to make a lesson to those who had dared aid the Ionians and began to set their sight on Athens.

According to historian Mark Cartwright in his article titled Marathon. He discusses how assisting the Ionians quickly escalated hostilities between the Greeks and Persians.

“Persia, under the rule of Darius (r. 522-486 BCE), was already expanding into mainland Europe and had subjugated Ionia, Thrace, and Macedonia by the beginning of the 5th century BCE. Next in king Darius’ sights were Athens and the rest of Greece. Just why Greece was coveted by Persia is unclear. Wealth and resources seem an unlikely motive; other more plausible suggestions include the need to increase the prestige of the king at home or to quell once and for all a collection of potentially troublesome rebel states on the western border of the empire.

The Ionian rebellion, the symbolic offering of earth and water in submission to the Persian satrap in 508 BCE, and the attack by Athens and Eretria on the city of Sardis in 499 BCE had not been forgotten either.Whatever the exact motives, in 491 BCE Darius once again sent envoys to call for the Greeks’ submission to Persian rule. The Greeks sent a no-nonsense reply by executing the envoys, and Athens and Sparta promised to form an alliance for the defence of Greece.

Darius’ response to this diplomatic outrage was to launch a naval force of 600 ships and 25,000 men to attack the Cyclades and Euboea, leaving the Persians just one step away from the rest of Greece. However, the invaders would meet their match in 490 BCE when the Greek forces led by Athens gathered at the plain of Marathon to defend their country from foreign subjugation.”

King Darius would not be dissuaded from trying to take revenge on the Athenians which is why things didn’t look good in 490 BC. The Persians were there to bring Athens to their heels. The Persian king is said to have charged his a slave with constant reminders. The slave was told to say “master, remember the Athenians” three times every day before meals. When the Persian army landed on the coast of Greece in Marathon Bay, the Athenians were outnumbered.

The Athenian army mostly made up of hoplites. A part-time soldier that was equipped with armor made of bronze and mostly used a spear as weaponry. These men also used large bronze-covered shield known as aspis. Their training had prepared them to defeat the enemy by using a formation called phalanxes. A tight-knit battle movement that proved to be extremely enduring and effective formation to use during warfare.

When King Darius army landed at Marathon Bay and prepared to invade the Greek’s city-state of Athens, the Spartans were not able to help or assist in time. The timing of the attack had arrived during a Spartan’s religious festival. They could only send men and aid after the celebrating was over once the full moon had passed. This would not be in time to help Athens against the Persian army on their coast. According to reports from HistoryNet article Battle of Marathon: Greeks Versus the Persians, there had been attempts made to get more men the moment it was learned the Persians were on the coast of Greece. There was not a lot of time before there would be an attack. post, we are going to be discussing the Battle of Marathon and

“Almost immediately after hearing the news of the Persian landing, the Athenians sent a runner named Pheidippides to Sparta to ask for their assistance. The Spartans promised to send aid, but with a major qualification: No help would be forthcoming until the Carneia (a religious festival) was over. The Spartan refusal to commit troops before then left the Athenians with three choices: march out and meet the Persians at Marathon; defend the pass at Pallini; or stay in the city and defend its walls…

The Athenians and their Plataean allies played for time in hopes that the Spartan hoplites would join them — not only to strengthen their numbers but because Spartan military renown stretched all the way to Persepolis, and a Spartan presence would surely dent Persian confidence. On the other hand, the longer the Persians stayed, the more cities would submit to them, lowering the confidence of the Athenian troops.”


The following is the account from Herodotus describing the battle as it unfolded. This was written a few years after the feud took place. Herodotus’s account appears in: Davis, William Sterns, Readings in Ancient History (1912); Creasy, Edward, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (1969).  I found Herodotus’ work on Eye Witness To History website. 

“The Athenians were drawn up in order of battle in a sacred close belonging to Heracles, when they were joined by the Plataeans, who came in full force to their aid. The Athenian generals were divided in their opinions. Some advised not to risk a battle, because they were too few to engage such a host as that of the Persians. Others were for fighting at once. Among these last was Miltiades. He therefore, seeing that opinions were thus divided, and that the less worthy counsel appeared likely to prevail, resolved to go to the polemarch [an honored dignitary of Athens], and have a conference with him. For the man on whom the lot fell to be polemarch at Athens was entitled to give his vote with the ten generals, since anciently the Athenians allowed him an equal right of voting with them. The polemarch at this juncture was Callimachus of Aphidnre; to him therefore Miltiades went, and said:

‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations. For never since the time that the Athenians became a people were they in so great a danger as now. If they bow their necks beneath the yoke of the Persians, the woes which they will have to suffer…are already determined. If, on the other hand, they fight and overcome, Athens may rise to be the very first city in Greece.’

‘We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided: half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle before any unsoundness shows itself among our citizens,…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’

‘On you therefore we depend in this matter, which lies wholly in your own power. You have only to add your vote to my side and your country will be free – and not free only, but the first state in Greece. Or, if you prefer to give your vote to them who would decline the combat, then the reverse will follow.’

Miltiades by these words gained Callimachus; and the addition of the polemarch’s vote caused the decision to be in favor of fighting.'”

The Battle Begins

Miltiades arranges the Greek line of battle so that it stretches the length of the opposing, and far superior, Persian army. Then, much to the surprise of the Persians, he orders the Greek warriors to charge headlong into the enemy line. — Eyewitness History 

“The Athenians…charged the barbarians at a run. Now the distance between the two armies was little short of eight furlongs [approximately a mile] The Persians, therefore, when they saw the Greeks coming on at speed, made ready to receive them, although it seemed to them that the Athenians were bereft of their senses, and bent upon their own destruction; for they saw a mere handful of men coming on at a run without either horsemen or archers.

Such was the opinion of the barbarians; but the Athenians in close array fell upon them, and fought in a manner worthy of being recorded. They were the first of the Greeks, so far as I know, who introduced the custom of charging the enemy at a run, and they were likewise the first who dared to look upon the Persian garb, and to face men clad in that fashion. Until this time the very name of the Persians had been a terror to the Greeks to hear.

The two armies fought together on the plain of Marathon for a length of time; and in the mid-battle the barbarians were victorious, and broke and pursued the Greeks into the inner country; but on the two wings the Athenians and the Plataeans defeated the enemy . Having so done, they suffered the routed barbarians to fly at their ease, and joining the two wings in one, fell upon those who had broken their own center, and fought and conquered them. These likewise fled, and now the Athenians hung upon the runaways and cut them down, chasing them all the way to the shore, on reaching which they laid hold of the ships and called aloud for fire.”

The Persians Attack Athens

Miltiades arranges the Greek line of battle so that it stretches the length of the opposing, and far superior, Persian army. Then, much to the surprise of the Persians, he orders the Greek warriors to charge headlong into the enemy line. — Eyewitness History 

“…the Athenians secured in this way seven of the vessels; while with the remainder the barbarians pushed off, and taking aboard their Eretrian prisoners from the island where they had left them, doubled Cape Sunium, hoping to reach Athens before the return of the Athenians.

The Persians accordingly sailed round Sunium. But the Athenians with all possible speed marched away to the defense of their city, and succeeded in reaching Athens before the appearance of the barbarians…The barbarian fleet arrived, and lay to off Phalerum, which was at that time the haven of Athens; but after resting awhile upon their oars, they departed and sailed away to Asia.”


The Battle of Marathon and the Greek’s great victory against the Persian Army of King Darius I breed a powerful legend of a runner named Pheidippides. The legend’s history weaves the story of young Pheidippides run to Athens after the battle had been won. The distance he is said to have run is estimated to be around twenty-six miles or forty kilometers. In an article titled Legendary Runner of Marathon – Pheidippides, the writer says that someone had to do the get the message to the Spartans.

“Someone had to warn Athens, so the generals (according to Plutarch) called-on a runner. Plutarch actually mentions several collapsing runners, including one from the battle of Marathon (called Eucles):

…who ran in full armor, hot from the battle, and, bursting in at the doors of the first men of the State, could only say “Hail! We are victorious!” and straightaway expired [that is, died].

The mists of history have attributed that feat to Pheidippides (perhaps because we know his name from Herodotus). The runner apparently made the trip to Athens in about 3 hours (or so), covering about 26 miles (just over 40 kilometers).

At the end of the day, we cannot be sure that the collapsing, dying runner was (in fact) Pheidippides (the hero of the Athens-Sparta-Athens trek). But … if it was … it certainly makes for a great story!”


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