The Battle of Marathon—Humiliation of a World Power
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GREECE
AS THE modern visitor descends the foothills around the Plain of Marathon, 25 miles [40 km] northeast of Athens, Greece, he feels immediately overtaken by the peace and unbroken serenity of the place. One can hardly imagine that this site served as the stage for one of the most famous battles of history, a battle that successfully held back the advance of the Mesopotamian world power into Europe itself. The World Book Encyclopedia calls it “one of the most important battles in the history of Western civilization.” And historian Will Durant describes it as “one of the most incredible victories of history.”
A World Power Challenged
The Bible prophecies of the book of Daniel portray in a very vivid way the domination, expansion, and succession of world powers. Speaking symbolically but very fittingly concerning the world power of Medo-Persia, Daniel wrote: “See there! another beast, a second one, it being like a bear. . . . This is what they were saying to it, ‘Get up, eat much flesh.’”—Daniel 7:5.
This proved to be true. During the peak of Medo-Persian power, about the second half of the sixth century B.C.E., its seemingly invincible armies under the leadership of Cyrus and Darius I swept westward across Lydia. Both Thrace and Macedonia, located in the north of Greece, were forcibly subdued. This meant that almost half the Greek-speaking world had already fallen into Persian hands, for with the capture of Lydia, the Persians also took possession of the Greek cities of the Ionian Coast that had been within the Lydian sphere of influence.
To the cry for help emanating from beleaguered Greek Ionian cities, only the city-states of Athens and Eretria responded. This did not prevent Persia’s disciplined forces from sweeping in and pounding the revolting Ionians into submission. What was more, Darius decided that he would have to punish the Greek city-states for helping the Ionian rebels.
When Athens, Sparta, and Eretria scornfully refused to satisfy the demands of Persia, a powerful force of Persian cavalry and infantry embarked for Greece in the early summer of 490 B.C.E. By August the Persians were ready to deal with Athens and its territory, Attica.
Questions of Strategy
The Persians landed at Marathon and then crossed the marshy plain of Attica’s east coast, which was only 26 miles [42 km] from Athens. The prospects were very bleak for the Athenians, who barely managed to gather a mere 9,000 foot soldiers, plus another 1,000 from Plataea, without any support from either cavalry or archers.* Although they asked for Sparta’s help, their pleas fell on deaf ears—the Spartans were busy with religious ceremonies honoring Apollo. Thus, with their limited military resources, the Athenians had to fight the Persians alone.
Ten different generals acted as a committee to determine, by majority vote, matters of strategy. Now they had to decide upon two matters at hand. First, should they keep their forces in Athens to defend the city, or should they meet the Persians in the field? Taking into consideration that the city of Athens had no strong protective walls to defend it, the assembly voted overwhelmingly to fight it out at Marathon.
Second, should they attack despite the odds against them—primarily the numerical superiority of the Persians—or should they stand and wait, all the while hoping that the Spartans would somehow arrive soon enough to help them successfully resist the formidable Persian onslaught?
General Miltiades—A Strategist
One key figure that emerged to play the role of leader was the Greek general Miltiades. He was an experienced and innovative army leader, a veteran who had fought on the side of the Persian army during earlier campaigns in the north. Therefore, he knew the enemy firsthand. He had good knowledge not only of the makeup of the Persian army but also of their weapons and, most important, of their battle strategy. Additionally, during the days prior to the battle, he judiciously studied very closely the surroundings of the battleground.
Miltiades was also aware that a quick response was necessary, since within the newly established Athenian democracy, there were pro-Persian factions that would welcome a defeat of Athens. On the night before the battle, a Persian defector slipped into the Greek camp with news that the Persian cavalry had temporarily withdrawn. One theory has it that the Persian cavalry had embarked for a possible attack on Athens from the east coast of Attica so that it could capture the city immediately after an almost sure victory at Marathon. Whatever the reason, this removed the gravest danger facing the Athenian foot soldiers.
As dawn broke, the Greek phalanxes charged. (See box, page 24.) The astonished Persians retreated but soon counterattacked and broke through the center of the Greek battle line. Thereby, the Persians unwittingly fell into Miltiades well-laid trap! He had purposely left the Greek center weak in order to strengthen his flanks with added rows of men. Now, the strong flanks suddenly swept around, falling upon the Persians and killing them in vast numbers until the remnants who managed to survive the onslaught fled back to their ships. The result was a tremendous massacre. Persian casualties reached about 6,400 men, whereas the Athenians lost only 192 of their men.
According to legend, the news of the Greek victory was sped back to Athens by a messenger. An erroneous tradition says his name was Pheidippides, but, in fact, Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta before the battle to seek help. Another young Greek, legend says, did run the 26 miles [42 km] from Marathon to Athens and upon arriving cried out, “Rejoice, we conquer!” and then dropped dead. This is said to be the first marathon—hence the origin of the word—which set the precedent for the modern-day long-distance footrace as we know it.
Although some of the Persian ships were set on fire, the great majority of the fleet of 600 ships managed to sail around Cape Colonna, located at the southern tip of Attica, and reach Athens. However, the victorious Athenian army got there first and met them again. The Persians were forced to withdraw. The Athenians had achieved a victory against all odds!
Athens was overjoyed, especially because the victory had been won without any help from the Spartans.
The Battle’s Significance
Marble and bronze memorials at Marathon and Delphi immortalized the Athenian triumph. According to historian Pausanias, 650 years later travelers still believed that they could hear ghostly noises of battling men when they crossed the battlefield.
Why was the battle of Marathon significant from a Bible standpoint? It was a hint, long in advance, of the eventual supremacy of the Greek “he-goat” of Daniel’s prophecy over the ‘two-horned ram’ of Medo-Persia.*—Daniel 8:5-8.
As one gazes at the Tomb of Marathon, which still stands on the battle site, one is reminded of the high toll in death and suffering that mankind has paid in the constant quest for power and dominance. The bloodstained pages of history, the silent battlegrounds, and the lonely tombs are full of “great men,” “heroes,” and “losers,” all victims of world politics and the struggle for power. However, the time is at hand when all political power struggles will be over, for God has prophesied: “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite.”—Daniel 2:44.
The figures for the battle of Marathon seem to be in dispute. Will Durant claims that the Greeks “had some twenty thousand men, the Persians probably one hundred thousand.”
For more information on the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecies, see “Your Will Be Done on Earth,” pages 190-201, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Box/Picture on page 24]
Hoplite and Phalanx—Recipe for Victory
Commenting on two key factors in the victory of the Athenians, the book A Soaring Spirit says: “The hoplites, as Greek infantrymen were called, had stronger body armour than their Persian counterparts, sturdier shields and longer spears. But more to the point, they fought with machine-like efficiency in phalanxes up to 12 ranks deep, the soldiers in each rank pressing so close together that their shields presented an almost unbroken wall. Facing such a prospect, the Persians learnt why the phalanx was the most fearsome engine of war known to the ancient world.”
The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck
[Pictures on page 23]
The Plain of Marathon. Insets: Monument to the 192 Athenians who died in the battle