Battle of Marathon

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Battle of Marathon
Part of: Persian Wars
Level of marathon today
Level of marathon today
date September 12, 490 BC Chr.
place Level at marathon
output Athenian victory
Parties to the conflict

Athenian , Plataiai





Troop strength
about 10,000 men 12,000 to 15,000 men

approx. 200 riders


192 men

6400 men (?)

The Battle of Marathon (490 BC) resulted from the attempt by the Persian Great King Dareios I to intervene with an expeditionary force in Athens and bring about a change of rule. The Persian Empire first appeared militarily in motherland Greece , where it wanted to expand its influence.


The background to the Battle of Marathon can be described in terms of three major areas of conflict: a geopolitical, a Greek and an Athenian. All three fields are linked with one another in many ways.

The geopolitical starting point in the Eastern Mediterranean

By the end of the 6th century BC The Persian Empire had extended its political power to the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor and , in particular, brought the Ionian poleis of Asia Minor and parts of the Aegean island world under its direct rule. Around 500 BC However, the so-called Ionian uprising began , which endangered the rule of Persia over the Greek cities of Asia Minor in Ionia . The center of this rebellion was Miletus and other important Ionian poles. Emissaries from these cities sought military and political support in motherland Greece. While the envoys were unsuccessful with the Peloponnesian supremacy Sparta , Athens, which had just shaken off the Peisistratiden rule (see below), said support and sent troops to Ionia, which were instrumental in the destruction of the capital of the Persian satrapy , Sardis involved. After the suppression of the Ionian Rebellion in 494 BC BC and the return of the Athenian troops, the Persian great king Dareios I began to punish the supporters. First, he secured the north flank by 492 BC. BC sent an expeditionary force led by his son-in-law Mardonios . His advance over Thrace and Macedonia was initially successful and probably also had the goal of including these areas in the Persian domain, but failed when the Persian fleet was destroyed in a storm on Mount Athos . Under the leadership of the Datis , the Persian corps first sailed via Samos to Naxos and finally reached the island of Evia (Polis Karystos ). Eventually it reached Eretria - there, according to a report by Plato, the entire population was enslaved. After this event, Datis advanced against the second supporter of the uprising: Athens. According to Herodotus, the expeditionary force went ashore in the Bay of Marathon , according to Cornelius Nepos they marched on foot.

The Greek world before the battle of Marathon

Towards the end of the Archaic period, the Greek settlement area was marked by the expansion of Persian rule. The entire Ionian coast is subject to Persian rule, the influence of the great empire is also becoming more and more evident in the Aegean island world ( Aigina ). In the Peloponnese, Sparta is the hegemonic power at the head of what was still a relatively loose alliance system ( Peloponnesian League ). In the years surrounding the marathon battle, it was paralyzed by a major internal political conflict: the deposition and death of the Spartan King Cleomenes I. The new political order of Athens was established in central Greece (see below). Attempts by foreign powers (Sparta, Chalkis , Thebes ) to prevent the rise of Athens were made at the end of the 6th century BC. BC failed. Athens itself remains isolated within the Greek world and has no allies. The relationship to the Peloponnesian supremacy Sparta can be described as tense since the failed Spartan intervention.

Athens before the battle of Marathon

After the fall of the Peisistratid tyranny and the expulsion of Hippias , the situation in Athens was initially unstable. The Alkmaionide Kleisthenes finally emerged victorious from the struggle of rival aristocratic factions ( hetairies ) by carrying out a comprehensive domestic political reform in Athens. The new system of Isonomia developed in the 5th century BC. To democracy . This new order continued in the years up to 508 BC. BC against a number of foreign military interventions and was able to assert itself. At the same time Hippias had withdrawn into the Persian sphere of influence and hoped for the possibility of a restoration of the tyranny. In the course of the Persian punitive expedition, Datis took Hippias on board. The aim of the Persian expedition seems to be to remove the Isonomia’s internal political system that is responsible for its participation in the Ionian uprising . The Persian armed forces probably landed in the Bay of Marathon precisely because they were hoping for an influx there - from old supporters of the Peisistratid tyranny, which traditionally had its strongest base in this region of Attica.

Course of the battle



The only coherent account of the Battle of Marathon comes from the Greek historian Herodotus (VI 94-117), who wrote about sixty years after the events - at a time when the Battle of Marathon was already subject to various reinterpretations and re-evaluations. Athens in particular cultivated the memory of the “first Persian War”, which the Athenians would have won “alone” - here the Plataeans are happy to be forgotten. Since Herodotus certainly relied to a large extent on Athenian sources, his report raises a number of problems that make a reconstruction of the course of the battle extremely difficult. The main ones are: What about the cavalry during the battle? How did the Persians get back on board so quickly? Why did the Athenians make so little booty (only 7 ships)? In addition, Herodotus clearly gives false information in some places in his report. The best-known example is the 8-stage run (approx. 1.5 km), which the Athenian and Plateau hoplites are said to have covered in a fast run. From today's point of view, this is completely unrealistic and must be regarded as part of the specifically Athenian memory, which Herodotus adopted without reflection.

Other notes on the course of the battle

In addition to the main source Herodotus, there are a number of smaller pieces of news in scattered places in Greek literature, e.g. T. are in open contradiction to him.

Cornelius Nepos

In his account of the life of Miltiades , Cornelius Nepos also goes into the battle of Marathon. Modern research assumes that he had a description of the battle of Ephoros , so that Nepos, although he lived in the 1st century BC, provides a fairly objective report. Above all, German ancient historians of the last two centuries have relied particularly on the Nepos report, although it contradicts Herodotus on many points. According to Nepos, the Persians attack while the Athenians remain in an optimally defensive position, so that the Persian cavalry cannot be deployed or is severely hindered.


In the Byzantine lexicon Suda from the 10th century AD there is also a gloss on the marathon battle. In contrast to Nepos, however, it contradicts Herodotus less than it clarifies the questions raised by Herodotus' report. Here it is said that the horses are gone ("chorìs hippeîs", which many historians understand to mean that they were embarked again), whereupon the Ionians from the Persian fleet climbed into the trees and gave Miltiades a sign that the Horses and dates were gone, whereupon he started the battle. Although this source is about 1300 years later than the battle, it still deserves attention, as an unbroken line of tradition leads from Byzantium to Athenian memory.

Archaeological sources

In the second half of the 20th century, excavations also helped to localize the battlefield more closely - the exact location of the battle in Attica is, however, still controversial in ancient historical research, as certain landmarks such as e.g. As the Temenos of Heracles , which plays an important role in the reporting of Herodotus, are archaeologically clearly localized.

In the grave tumulus of the fallen Athenian warriors, some vases were found, all of which apparently came from the hand of the same artist, the so-called marathon painter .

Prepare for battle

According to Herodotus, the Persians chose the plain of Marathon for their landing, as suggested by Hippias, who was once ruler of Athens and had been driven out twenty years earlier. The location seemed favorable, being about 25 miles from Athens, so that if the Athenians noticed the landing, they could not arrive with the army until the Persians had fully landed. In addition, the plain was well suited for the most powerful weapon of the Persians, the cavalry.

Herodotus reports that after the news of the Persian landing on the Bay of Marathon, an Athenian messenger named Pheidippides was sent to Sparta with a request for military support. Allegedly, the Spartans left too late because they wanted to wait for the full moon and only arrived three days after the battle with 2,000 hoplites . The legend comes from Athenian production, probably originated in the middle of the 5th century BC. BC, and served to discredit Sparta as a hegemonic power in Greece. A total of three completely different versions of the legend in Herodotus, Plato and Isocrates show that there was no agreement either about the reason for the delay or about its duration. Athens only received support from the Polis Plataiai in the Athenian-Boiotic border area, although research has disputed whether Plataiai was perhaps even part of the Athenian state association. In any case, 1,000 hoplites from Plataiai supported the Athenian contingent, which is said to have been 9,000 hoplites.

The move out of the city is attributed to a popular resolution by Nepos, which is said to have come about at the request of the Miltiades , but which was probably only constructed later. The Athenian army moved into the plain of Marathon and took up quarters at a sanctuary of Heracles , which played an important role for the local identity of the inhabitants of this area and was also intended to secure the support of the hero in the battle. In addition, the sanctuary offered itself as a defensive position from which the Persian landing in the bay could be observed. The armies are said to have waited several days to face the report of Herodotus, but later sources report an Athenian assault. With Herodotus, the decision for the battle is said to have been made in a war council of strategists, in which the strategist Miltiades is said to have convinced the hesitant commander-in-chief (Archon Polemarchos) Callimachus to decide with his vote for an attack. This narrative tradition appears in the middle of the 5th century BC. When Miltiades 'son Kimon held the leading position in Athens and emphasized his father's share in the marathon victory and diminished Callimachos' role (cf. Nachleben). The reasons why Athens is said to have given up its secured defensive position and attacked are among the greatest puzzles of the battle. It is believed that the Persian troops may have already withdrawn to attack Athens elsewhere. In contrast, later sources ( Cornelius Nepos ), which presumably go back to the Greek historian Ephoros , report that it was the Persians who opened the battle. In this case, the Athenian tradition would have enhanced its own victory afterwards by carrying out the attack by its own troops.

The date of the battle

The exact slaughter date is uncertain. The traditional reconstruction goes from September 12, 490 BC. BC, but can only be based on calculations of the full moon phases of this year. The date of the slaughter is reconstructed from the Herodoteic report that the Spartans wanted to wait for the full moon and should have arrived in Attica three days later. This episode is described very differently by other sources (see above) and is probably unhistorical. In this respect, the full moon is omitted as a clue for dating. The Athenians later celebrated their marathon festival on the 6th  Boëdromion , in antiquity this day was also considered the anniversary of the battle, but in reality it is probably only the date of the withdrawal of the army from the city to the plain of Marathon an exact date of the slaughter cannot be reconstructed, the battle would have to - according to today's calendar - end of August to mid-September 490 BC. Have taken place.

A team led by Donald Olson from Texas State University-San Marcos made a new attempt in 2004 to determine the date using the phases of the moon. The Attic and Spartan calendars were both based on the phases of the moon, but Sparta's calendar started later, more precisely on the first full moon after the autumnal equinox. In 491/490 BC Between this and the summer solstice there were ten full moons instead of the usual nine, which is why the Spartan calendar preceded the Athenian one by one month and the battle took place in August 490 BC. Took place.

The battle

The strength of the Athenian army was based on the hoplite phalanx ( infantry ), while the Persian strengths lay mainly in the lightly armed (archers) and cavalry. Amazingly, according to Herodotus' report, the cavalry was not supposed to have been deployed, whereas Cornelius Nepos depicts their intervention in the battle. The fact that the cavalry apparently did not play a significant role in this battle is mostly explained by the fact that either the cavalry was hindered by the terrain because the terrain was unfavorable for the cavalry (as Nepos portrays it), or that the horses are already on the Ships were when the Persians were attacked while they were being loaded (so it says in the Suda note). Loading the horses was on the one hand more complex, but on the other hand had to be secured by our own troops and was therefore always carried out first. Therefore, if the Greeks actually attacked the Persians when they withdrew, the Persian cavalry would not have been able to intervene.

It is more likely, however, that Miltiades cleverly exploited the area and set up his army at the exit of a side valley, today's Vrana valley, where it was protected by the mountains and additional cleats in the flanks. He strengthened the wings of his phalanx (according to Herodotus' report, the Athenian wings are said to have been significantly stronger than the central meeting) and probably had some riflemen and javelin throwers take up positions on the hills to the right and left.

The Persians had no choice. They had to accept the fight with the Greeks on the terrain chosen by them. Although they could have moved directly to Athens past the Vrana Valley, they would then have been exposed to attacks on their flank by the Greeks. So they attacked. If, as is often assumed, they had outnumbered the Greeks by far, part of the Persian army could have taken a position before the Greeks and another part could have bypassed the Greeks and stabbed them in their rear.

The Greeks let the Persians get about 100 to 150 paces in order not to lose their cover, and only then did they attack. The center of the Greek phalanx, which was weaker than usual due to the lower flanks, could not withstand the hail of arrows from the Persians and had to give way. The Greek wings could now attack the Persian center.

The Persian archers were unable to cope with this massive assault of the advancing phalanx - that the Greek hoplites actually attacked at a run, however, is unlikely due to the armament and the need to hold the formation. Athenian units are said to have pursued and captured seven Persian ships. The archon polemarchos Callimachos as the Athenian commander in chief, as well as Kynaigeiros , brother of the tragedy poet Aeschylus , are said to have died. There are contradicting data about the fate of his Persian rival Datis. According to later sources, he should also have fallen, but this is unlikely.

It is reasonably certain that the number of fallen Athenian full citizens was 192. In later times, a large list of the dead recorded the names of the dead at the battle site. It is unclear how many slaves and plateaus also fell on the Athenian side. The number of Persian dead is given by Herodotus as 6400 - but because this is in an exact ratio of 100: 3 to the Athenian numbers, this number deserves little trust. Information about the strength of the Persian troops cannot be obtained from these undoubtedly exaggerated figures.

After the battle

After the battle, the Athenian army is said to have returned to Athens in an express march to secure the city against a suspected further Persian attack. From this it becomes clear that the battle itself could only have been a first meeting and that the Persian expeditionary force was still capable of attack. After the arrival of the hoplite army, however, no further attack should have occurred.

The account of an Athenian runner who is said to have proclaimed victory while dying in Athens is an invention from the 4th century BC. The legend of the marathon runner is not documented by Herodotus - the most important source. It is only reported in Roman imperial sources, but the legend probably goes back to Herakleides Ponticus . The names of the runner vary in tradition, but are all speaking like Eukles - "the famous" or invented in some other way ( Pheidippides - after the runner who ran to Sparta with Herodotus; Thersippus - after an Athenian king). The same legend is told as the origin legend for important gun runs in almost all parts of the Greek world, so that the assumption is that the story of the marathon runner also arose to historically justify a gun run as a competition. It was probably a run of the Athenian conscripts ( Ephebe ), which led from Athens to Agrai and was closely connected with the marathon memory in later times.


With the defeat of Marathon, the Persian attempt to reinstate Hippias in Athens and punish the city for supporting the Ionian uprising had failed. For the Persian Empire it presented itself as an unsuccessful battle on the edge of its sphere of influence (the British poet Robert Graves wrote in the Collected Poems, The Persian Version of 1959: Truthloving Persians do not dwell upon / the trivial skirmish fought near Marathon - "Truth- loving Persians are quite unconcerned about the little skirmish that Marathon has to offer ”). The attempt by Xerxes I ten years later, however, had the goal of bringing all of Greece under Persian rule (→ Persian Wars ).

However, there is also the view in current research that Athens' victory at Marathon certainly had precedent character. The argument goes in the direction that the Persian Empire hardly knew how to deal with resistance to its own conquests. The Greek opposition to the repeated campaigns and the failure of the 'punitive expedition' led to an appreciation of the defeat from the Persian point of view, without much intervention by Greek propaganda. The second attack on Athens by Xerxes could support this view, as it indicates a longer-term confrontation between the two powers.

Athens later tried to portray the landing of the Persians at Marathon as an invasion with the same goal as that of the Xerxes train. This is already ruled out due to the small size of the Persian troops - it was a clearly delimited military punitive operation with a clearly defined goal. The Athenian intentions to develop a marathon for the first great Persian battle were primarily due to the rivalry with Sparta. Since Sparta's leadership role during the Xerxes march could not be seriously disputed, it could be claimed with reference to Marathon that Athens had already left Greece completely on its own ten years earlier and selflessly rescued from the Persian danger without any help.

Athens embellished the battle with countless legends and myths and made the marathon a key event in its own history. Marathon played a major role for his state-political self-image ( Attic democracy ), but also for the historical legitimation of his own hegemonic aspirations in Greece ( Attic League ). Outside Athens, on the other hand, the polis was accused of upgrading the battle far too much in order to justify its own claims to rule. The historian Theopompus in the 4th century BC BC found that the Athenians made many false claims about the battle. In reality, according to Theopomp, it was only "an insignificant brief skirmish on the beach".

Counterfactual story

The controversy surrounding the importance of marathons revived after the beginning of the 19th century. As a result of the increasing fascination for antiquity and the Europe-wide enthusiasm for the Greek uprising against Ottoman rule 1821–1829, renewed interest in the Athenian victory arose, which was combined with increasing European awareness of power and self-image as the culmination of civilizational development. The inclusion as number one under The Fifteen Decisive Battles in World History by Edward Shepherd Creasy (1851) canonized the Athenian interpretation of the battle in the broader sense that in the event of a Persian victory there would be no Attic democracy, no Greek classical and no Hellenistic world culture , then no Rome would have given as a mediator of the Greek spirit to the western and northern peoples and finally no renaissance , no humanism and no modernity either ; the world of European states would have become a mere appendage of the victorious "Asian despotism". A critical evaluation of this interpreted marathon would speak of an orientalist construct.

This world-historical vision has provoked further assumptions of counterfactual historiography , whereby the immediate consequences of a victory of the Persians are largely undisputed: In Athens Hippias would have renewed the rule of the Peisistratids and Greece would have become a Persian satrapy up to the edge of the Peloponnese . In addition to the possible further development already presented, two others are placed: The most likely alternative is the least spectacular; The still independent and militarily extremely strong Sparta would have instigated a general Greek uprising a few decades after the marathon, which would have been successful because of the peripheral location of Greece and the overstretching of Persia, so that history would not have been much different. More interesting is the assumption that Persian rule would have left Greek democracy untouched as a state construct of its own kind, as was also possible in Ionia; as a further consequence the Greek civil wars would not have taken place and a west-east syncretism would have come about as in Hellenism - but much earlier . Persia, however, would not have had any influence on the further state development of Europe, since the ultimately decisive power in the Mediterranean, the Roman Republic , developed its form of government out of its own traditions and needs.

One of the most important points of criticism of these considerations is that the idea of ​​a contradiction between a “Greek freedom” and a “Persian despotism” can now be regarded as outdated: Many essential achievements of early Greek culture were not made in the “free” mother country, but in the Ionian Greek cities under Persian rule ( e.g. Miletus ). If Greece had come under Persian rule in 490 or 480, this would not necessarily have meant that classical Greek culture would not have emerged - however, it would be Athens, which only rose to become one of the leading poles and head of the First League due to the victories in the Persian War could not become such an important cultural center in the event of defeat.


  • Norman A. Doenges: The Campaign and Battle of Marathon. In: Historia . Volume 47, 1998, ISSN  0018-2311 , pp. 1-17.
  • James AS Evans: Herodotus and Marathon. In: Florilegium. Volume 6, 1984, ISSN  0709-5201 , pp. 1-26.
  • James AS Evans: Herodotus and the Battle of Marathon. In: Historia. Volume 42, 1993, ISSN  0018-2311 , pp. 279-307.
  • Martin Flashar : The winners of marathon. Between mythization and exemplary behavior. In: Martin Flashar, Hans-Joachim Gehrke, Ernst Heinrich (Ed.): Retrospective. Concepts of the past in Greco-Roman antiquity (= European histories. Volume 2). Biering and Brinkmann, Munich 1996, ISBN 3-930609-08-8 , pp. 63-85.
  • Hans-Joachim Gehrke : Marathon (490 BC) as a myth. Of heroes and barbarians. In: Gerd Krumeich, Susanne Brandt (eds.): Battle myths. Event - narration - memory. Böhlau, Cologne / Weimar / Vienna 2004, ISBN 3-412-08703-3 , pp. 19–32.
  • Hans W. Giessen: The Marathon Myth. From Herodotus through Bréal to the present (= Landau writings on communication and cultural studies. Volume 17). Verlag Empirische Pädagogik, Landau 2010, ISBN 978-3-941320-46-8 .
  • Peter Green: The Greco-Persian Wars. University of California Press, Berkeley 1996, ISBN 0-520-20573-1 .
  • Nicholas GL Hammond: The Campaign and the Battle of Marathon. In: Journal of Hellenic Studies . Volume 88, 1968, ISSN  0075-4269 , pp. 13-57.
  • Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp : Marathon. From monument to myth. In: Dietrich Papenfuß, Volker Michael Strocka (Ed.): Was there a Greek miracle? Greece between the end of the 6th and the middle of the 5th century BC Chr. Conference Papers of the 16th Symposium of specialist Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, held from 5 to 9 April 1999 in Freiburg. Zabern, Mainz 2001, ISBN 3-8053-2710-2 , pp. 329-353.
  • Michael Jung: Marathon and Plataiai. Two Persian battles as "lieux de mémoire" in ancient Greece (= Hypomnemata. Studies on antiquity and its afterlife . Volume 164). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2006, ISBN 978-3-525-25263-5 .
  • W. Kendrick Pritchett : Marathon. In: University of California Publications in Classical Archeology. Volume 4, 1960, ISSN  0896-8837 , pp. 136-189.
  • Karl-Wilhelm Welwei : Classical Athens. Democracy and Power Politics in the 5th and 4th Centuries. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1999, ISBN 3-534-12976-8 , especially p. 31 ff.
  • Josef Wiesehöfer : "Greece would have come under Persian rule ...". The Persian Wars as a turning point? In: Sven Sellmer, Horst Brinkhaus (Ed.): Turning times. Historical breaks in Asian and African societies (= Asia and Africa. Volume 4). EB, Hamburg 2002, ISBN 3-930826-64-X , pp. 209-232.
  • Hans Delbrück : History of the Art of War. Volume 1, de Gruyter, Berlin 2000, ISBN 3-11-016983-5 , pp. 58-59 (new edition of the 1964 reprint).
  • Peter Krentz: The Battle of Marathon. Yale University Press, New Haven / London 2010

Web links

Commons : Battle of Marathon  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Suda , keyword chorìs hippeîs , Adler number: chi 444 , Suda-Online
  2. See also Michael Jung: Marathon und Plataiai. Two Persian battles as "lieux de mémoire" in ancient Greece. (= Hypomnemata. Investigations into antiquity and its afterlife; vol. 164), Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2006. ISBN 978-3-525-25263-5 .
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on October 16, 2005 .

Coordinates: 38 ° 7 ′ 5 ″  N , 23 ° 58 ′ 42 ″  E