The Athenians learned the Persian army were soon sailing from Eretria to Marathon, and with this knowledge, they commenced their preparation for battle (6. 1023).
The Athenians were completely beginning their combat in a disadvantaged state. During their preparation, external and internal conflicts occurred that held them unable to form alliance with other Greek nations. From Herodotus accounts, the internal problems occurred mainly due to the division in the ten Athenian generals (6. 109).
They were arguing the most convenient military strategy, but the military had doubts as to whether they should give bank against the enemy outside the city or else allow the situation to lead out a siege (Grote 2001 304).
By quantity, the records of Persians and Sacaes’ army surpassed the union of Athenians and Plataeans (6. 113).
Therefore, the triumph of Persians was initially more conceivable due to their immense battling power and the disadvantaged condition of Athens. Discussion Disadvantages of Athens Over Persians During the Battle With the historical accounts on Athenian versus Persian’s military, Athens suffered the most in terms of military quantity and conflicting military strategy. The Persian army came across the Aegean Sea on a large fleet. Their fleet’s first activity destroyed the small city of Eretria on Euboea, and then crossed over to Attica.
Considering this illustration, the Athenians were vastly outnumbered by the Persian fleets. The only military advantage of Athenians was to meet the Persian army in land (Dandamaev 1989 178). However, even by land, the Athenians were in a difficult position and they initially had no reason to hope for assistance outside their realm. An estimate of the Persian army in 490 B. C. —at about 4,000 to 6,000 warriors, including 500 to 800 mounted men- overpowered Athenian’s fleet. Meanwhile, as with the Greeks, there were large numbers of unarmored men but still smaller in quantity compared with the Persians.
In addition to this, the neighboring districts, such as Bocotia, could have posed as Greek allies, but turned against them by openly welcoming the advent of the Persians (Creasy 1863 50; Grote 2001 304). Fortunately, the Athenians were able to find alliance with the Plataeans to combat the Persians (6. 111).
In terms of internal problems of Athens, political disagreements were occurring during the time of their war preparation, which gravely placed Athens in a disadvantage position over the Persians. The last tyrant of Athens who was deprived of his power and exiled from Athens was Hippias. However, He was given a position by the Persians as governor of the town of Sigeum on the Hellespont in order to illustrate the illusion of their political generosity to Greeks (Creasy 1863 52).
The political strife continued between the aristocrats and the democratic party. In particular, there was the noble family of the Alcmeonids (who had been deprived of their power by their political opponent Miltiades) united itself with the adherents of Hippias and hoped to return Hippias power with their political strife. Some of the Athenians were prepared to help the Persian and without publicly acclaiming so, hoped for their victory. Now, at an advanced age, he returned with the Persian army to Attica where his secret adherents awaited him (Grote 2001 305).
Many Greek Elites were opposed to the risky war with the Persians, since the defeat from war would lose their riches and influence (Dandamaev 1989 177).
Some were tempted to surrender the city to the Persian and to take all possible advantage from this voluntary submission. The Strategies of War by Persians Under the guidance of Hippias, the former ruler of Athens, the Persians chose the plain of Marathon for their debarkation area (Creasy 1863 53).
The mission of the Persian commanders Datis and Artaphernes were the first to debark the army at some point on the Athenian coast, and then to attack and conquer the city of Athens itself. Arguing, if an Athenian army should appear in the open countryside, then it would first had to be defeated and driven back (Grote 2001 304).
Unfortunately, the Athenians were unable to determine the landing point of the Persians. It was at a distance of about nineteen miles from Athens and their landing point was unguarded by Athens. As for these statements, the Athenians were completely disadvantaged in their positions of war towards the Persians.
However, the argument still lies on how Athenians were able to combat the Persians and attain victor. When the Persian army disembarked at Marathon, there was considerable disagreement in the Athenian assembly concerning the tactics for the impending battle with the Persians. Miltiades, the leader of the conservative farmers who was once Athenian strategoi (the highest military commanders), feared betrayal from the side of the pro-Persian faction and therefore insisted on an immediate advance upon the Persians (Dandamaev 1989 179).
In addition from Herodotus accounts, the ten military generals of Athens were divided with the opinions on how to strategize the war (6. 109).
Athenians were confronted with political division, military disorganized tactics, and an army with mostly unarmored peasants. The Acts of Miltiades and the Turn to Athenian Victor From the discussed portions of this study depicting the weakness of Athens both externally and internally, their side was still able to triumph the war. From the accounts of historian Gillis, the Athenian army consisted of about 10,000 men who marched to the plain of Marathon.
There were also approximately 1,000 men from the allied Boeotian town of Plataea, located at the border of Attica (44). The Athenians did not expect help from the other Greeks because the neighboring Greeks were already indifferent towards the fate of Athens, which had the impudence to wage war against “the Great Kin”’. Moreover, other neighboring Greeks considered the alliance to Persian army against Athens, such as the neighboring island of Aegina, which for long had been a rival of Athens.
Athens was condemned in loosing the battle unless formations of ally were to be made. Fortunately, it was Miltiades, who resolved the issues of alliance, with his agreement with Callimachus (Herodotus, 6. 110).
In addition, Miltiades resolved the conflict of the ten generals rendering their internal military forces unified. At the same time, from the accounts of Gillis, the famous runner Pheidippides was sent to Sparta in order to present the Athenian request for help (44).
The Spartans promised assistance but they did not hasten to send out their soldiers as there was an old belief that it was impossible to start a campaign before a full moon (MacGregor 2005 194). Sparta was afraid that the Persians, after conquering Attica, would advance towards the Peloponnesus and set up a naval blockade of the peninsula (Gillis 1831 44).
Many from the Athenian Elites and civilians were opposed to immediate action of war; however, Miltiades and his adherents finally managed to persuade the Athenians to attack and defeat the Persians. It should be noted that the Persian army was encamped in the open plain where it was possible for them to deploy their cavalry. The Athenians, who were without cavalry, had assembled in a narrow part of the plain.
The terrain was an advantage for Athenians as it offered no advantages to the Persian horsemen. In the meantime, the situation of the Persian army had deteriorated, and the Persian commander Datis, awaiting in vain some sign from his friends in Athens, was forced to rake a decision as to the necessary course of action (Gillis 1831 44).
He apparently knew about the Spartan decision to march towards Attica after the next full moon, and wanted to decide the war before their arrival (Mure 1853 130).
At the same time, he was unable to move his army towards the defile where the Athenians were entrenched. Datis attentively followed events at Athens, whence he expected the signal (a shield lifted up above the city walls) that would indicate the city had come under the control of the adherents of the dethroned tyrant, Hippias (Mure 1853 132).
In Athens, the supporters of the Persians were ready to act, but they could not decide on whether to take the risk or not. Thus, in their turn, they waited for the Persian army to defeat the Athenians (Gillis 1831 45). The battle commenced on the morning of the 12th of August, 490 B. C. (for the chronology, see Burn 1970:257). The Athenians quickly lined up, left their defensive position in the narrows and in a quick march descended down the defile to the enemy (Mure 1853 132).
The front line of the Athenians was as wide as that of the Persians, although in the centre the Athenian ranks were not as deep. The disposition of both armies was in accordance with the traditions of both sides: the Persians positioned the best troops in the centre, while the Greeks usually attempted at all cost to fight a victory on the flanks and subsequently to turn upon the centre of the enemy ranks. When full moon had come, Sparta sent 2,000 soldiers to the assistance of the Athenians. However, Spartan force arrived when the battle had already been decided. The Spartans looked with interest at the corpses of the fallen Persians, as most of them had never seen Persians before (Mure 1853 132).
The victory at Marathon was the first success of the Greeks in the wars with the Persians who had previously seemed invincible (MacGregor 2005 194).
The defeat of the Persians was caused by a combination of factors. First, although their army to a certain degree surpassed in number that of the Athenians, only part of the Persian troops could take part in the battle, while the cavalry could not join in at all and had to remain idle. Second, the Persians were campaigning in an unknown country and had been forced to make a long journey to arrive at Marathon.
Third, the heavily armed Greek foot soldiers, the hoplites, were protected by iron armour, and as a result, the lightly armed Persian elite troops could not breach their ranks. Fourth and of considerable significance, is the fact that the Athenian army was commanded by the talented general Miltiades, who was well acquainted with Persian military tactics.
Primary Resources: Rawlinson, George, and Herodotus. The Persian Wars by Herodotus: Book 6 - ERATO. 1942.
Secondary Resources: Creasy, Edward S. The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, from Marathon to Waterloo. Harper, 1863.
Dandamaev, D A. A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire. BRILL, 1989.
George, Grote S. A History of Greece: From the Time of Solon to 403 Bc. Routledge, 2001.
Gillis, John S. The History of Ancient Greece: Its Colonies and Conquests. Thomas Wardle, 1831.
MacGregor, MacGregor. The Story of Greece. Yesterday's Classics, 2006.
Mure, William S. A critical history of the language and literature of antient Greece. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853.