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Monday, 12 September 2016

The Battle of Marathon and the Confidence of Winning

Phidippides delivering news of the Athenian victory after running the first marathon.
Today (September 12th) is by custom the anniversary of the famous Battle of Marathon (490 BC), the first great struggle between the Greeks and the Persians. It was a great defensive victory, in which the Athenians repelled a dangerous invasion of their homeland. Along with the great offensive victory of Arbela (331 BC), when Alexander the Great and his Macedonians crushed the Persians in the heart of their empire, it is one of the "Fifteen Decisive Battles" according to Sir Edward Creasy in the book of that name, written in 1851.

Why this battle, rather than others, like the great naval victory of Salamis or the land victory of Plataea over even larger Persian forces ten years later, should have been selected for inclusion in "Fifteen Decisive Battles" book may seem surprising, but Creasy makes a strong case:
"The day of Marathon is the critical epoch in the history of the two nations. It broke forever the spell of Persian invincibility, which had previously paralyzed men's minds. It generated among the Greeks the spirit which beat back Xerxes, and afterwards led on Xenophon, Agesilaus, and Alexander in terrible retaliation through their Asiatic campaigns. It secured for mankind the intellectual treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, the liberal enlightenment of the Western world, and the gradual ascendancy for many ages of the great principles of European Civilization."
Creasy's case is that Athens, as a small state opposed to a vast empire, was in danger of being not only overawed by the impressiveness of Persian power, but also deeply divided, as some Athenians vacillated. The Persians had already crushed the Greek rebellion in Ionia (Western Anatolia) nine years earlier, and this expedition had been sent to punish those Greek states most active in supporting that rebellion, namely Athens and Eretria on the island of Euboea. Eretria had already been destroyed and its people slaughtered or enslaved.

The ten Athenian generals were already deeply divided on whether to risk a battle, and if they hadn't there was every chance the Persians would have prevailed by dividing the Athenians among themselves and then winning an easy victory. This would have then established them in the heart of Greece, and polluted the fountain spring of Western civilization with Oriental despotism.

History can advance by clear and obvious steps—great states subjecting smaller states, etc.—or something can happen to throw things off the rails. In this case the decisive factor was Miltiades, one of the ten generals. He managed to persuade the other generals to hazard an action. From previous experience with the Persians, he believed that a Greek army could defeat a Persian army if it truly believed in its inherent military superiority. The problem was that before Marathon they did not believe, but that after it they always believed. This was the work of Miltiades and changed history.


In the actual battle, the outnumbered Athenians and a few allies from the town of Plataea (10,000 men against an army several times its size), formed up, strong in both wings but stretched in the middle. This formation allowed them to win in two out of three sectors of the battlefield and then close in on the Persians in the center, who then broke and ran for their ships and were cut down as they did so.

The only response an empire like Persia could make to this was to prepare for an even larger invasion, which arrived ten years later. But by then the Greeks had full confidence in their fighting abilities, the key factor in warfare and indeed any struggle.

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