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The origins

In 500 BC the cities of Ionian Greece were under the control of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The citizens of some of these cities rebelled against their Persian appointed tyrants, and the governor of Miletus, Aristogoras, decided to appeal for help from the major Greek cities. You first of all approached Sparta where he was rebuffed but then travelled to Athens, which recently turned Democratic which was more open to appeals to help other Greeks achieve independence. The Athenians sent 20 ships across to Ionia and totally destroyed the major Persian city of Srdis but their enthusiasm soon petered out in the face of Persian power. The Persian emperor, Darius, however was not amused; he razed Miletus to the ground and vowed to punish the Athenians. Getting together a huge army and arranging for it to be provisioned was not an easy task in those days however, and it was nine years before he was ready for his invasion.

The invasion

The first attempt was a failure, since the storm destroyed most of the Persian fleet. A new fleet was created however and a decision was made to land at Marathon. The reason for this was that there was adequate room for a large camp, and a large plain which would be ideal terrain for the Persian cavalry, which was a major arm of the army. On the way they invested the city of Eritrea; this was betrayed by some of its own citizens and razed to the ground. All the surviving inhabitants were carried away into slavery. The Athenians saw what had happened to the city and, fearful that Athens itself could suffer the same fate, decided to march to Marathon to settle the matter there.

The protagonists

The strength of the Persian army was in its sheer numbers, and in its cavalry which have the task of breaking up enemy formations, leaving them to be finished off by the infantry. The infantry themselves have little or no armour; part of the reason for this was the most of their battles were carried out in regions with very hot climates where metal armour in particular could have been a considerable hindrance. They carried shields made of wicker; whilst these were long enough to protect most of the body they were not wide enough to form an interlocking shield wall. The armaments carried by the infantry usually consisted of a short stabbing spear, a short sword and a bow. The soldiers themselves were mainly mercenaries who came from all parts of the Persian Empire.

The Athenians soldiers – named hoplites – were entirely different. The city states of Greece were in regular warfare with each other. This resulted in a very high degree of military preparedness, training and equipment. Physical fitness was glorified and the army was well disciplined. Equipment, for the time, was superb; shields were made of oak, with bronze, and the wide enough to form a solid wall when the men stood side-by-side; they wore personal armour and helmets, in bronze; and they carried large heavy spears of between six and 9 feet long which could be used for throwing or stabbing. In addition they carried short swords for close combat. Their usual combat formation was the phalanx; this was a a front line of infantry spread across the battlefield, with as many additional lines behind as circumstances dictated. When in contact with the enemy the front line were able to interlock their shields so as to form a wall against enemy weapons, and they would use their short swords against them, whilst those behind them were able to use their long spears to deadly effect. The phalanx would usually move forward slowly at first, maintaining formation, I'm gradually increase speed as it approached the enemy line.

The Athenians soldiers were also reinforced by men from Platea but their force was still numerically inferior to that of the Persians.

The tactics

The Persians had a huge advantage in numbers and a strong and experienced cavalry force. The Athenians however have better knowledge of the terrain. When they arrived at the field of battle they set up a strong camp in the rugged hillside which defended them from cavalry attack. It is believed that they then slowly advanced their camp over the next few days, felling trees as they did so in order to impede the cavalry opposing them. On the day of the battle, rather than advance slowly to meet the enemy in the traditional way, they began to run from a mile away. This gave the Persians insufficient time to deploy their cavalry before the two infantry forces clashed.

The main strength of the Greek line was in the wings and the centre, which was likely to bear the brunt of the initial fighting, was left weak. This eventually collapsed and the Persians flooded into the gap. The two wings then closed in to meet each other; the Persians were surrounded on all sides and panic set in. They retreated towards their ships but, not having sufficient knowledge of the terrain, many of them blundered into a large swamp where they were slaughtered. The Greeks were able to reach some of their ships and destroy them; the remainder set sail to attack Athens directly. The bulk of the Greek army therefore returned to Athens as quickly as possible; the Persians sailed back home to report to a furious Darius who vowed to return as quickly as possible to teach the Greeks a lesson they would never forget. However, he died several years later before this could be done, and the next chapter concerns his son Xerxes.