BATTLE OF MARATHON
August 5, 2008
Outline the causes for the Battle of Marathon. Evaluate the historical significance for the Battle of Marathon.
Assess the legends associated with the Battle of Marathon.
Athens was not entirely alone in its fight against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 bc. Plataea fought beside Athens, true to the alliance of 519, and the Tomb of the Plataeans, excavated in 1966, probably commemorates the place where they fell. Eretria, which had also sent help to the Ionian revolt, had already been pounced on and destroyed. The reasons for the Persian choice of Marathon, as given by Herodotus, were proximity to Eretria (that is, the Persians wanted a short line of communications) and the good cavalry terrain there. He does not add, however, that a third powerful motive was political. The deposed Peisistratid tyrant Hippias, now a bitter old man, accompanied the Persian forces. (The Peisistratids came originally from eastern Attica.) Cleisthenes, in implementing his democratic reforms after the fall of the tyrants, had perhaps tried to break up old sources of political influence in this region. For instance, Rhamnus, a little to the north of Marathon and a vital coastal garrison site in Classical and Hellenistic times, seems to have been anomalously attributed to a city trittys; and an ancient local organization known as the Marathonian “Four Cities,” or Tetrapolis, was broken up among more than one of the new tribes. Reasonably or unreasonably, Hippias was obviously hoping to establish a kind of political bridgehead here by appealing to old bonds of clientship.
The Athenians, however, marched out immediately under Miltiades, who had been recalled a year or two earlier from the Chersonese to help Athens meet the danger. Then, perhaps when the Persian cavalry was temporarily absent, they attacked the Persians “at a run.” This last detail impressed itself on the tradition, as it undoubtedly impressed the waiting Persians, and the discovery of Persian arrowheads in the Athenian burial mound makes it possible to supply the explanation that had eluded Herodotus. The Athenian advance was evidently achieved under a hail of arrows; and the quicker the dangerous ground was covered, the better.
The Athenian victory was overwhelming; there were 6,400 Persian casualties to 192 Athenian. It was an important victory for two reasons. First, it showed what lethal damage hoplites could do to Persian forces; this encouraging message was not missed by the Spartans who arrived to view the corpses and departed with patronizing congratulations to the Athenians. Second and more important, it was a propaganda victory, celebrated in all the available media. Marathon soon became an almost mythical event. The Athenian Treasury at Delphi was built out of the spoils of the battle. An ambitious conjecture seeks to equate the 192 Marathon dead with the 192 equestrian figures on the Parthenon frieze. The horses on the frieze would be a difficulty if the idea was to recall the battle in a literal way, because the battle was definitely not a cavalry affair; but it has been ingeniously suggested that the horses were intended to suggest “heroic” status in the technical sense of “hero,” or demigod. Heroic cult often involved horses (as perhaps at Lefkandi), and heroic funerals regularly included equestrian events. This interpretation, however, poses problems for two reasons: the frieze was partially destroyed in the 17th century and reconstruction depends on old drawings, and the evidence for actual heroization of the Marathonian dead is late. Other, though not necessarily incompatible, interpretations of the Parthenon frieze are available: perhaps it represents the mythical daughters of Erechtheus, who saved the city by sacrificing themselves, a favourite and familiar theme in Athenian myth.
Still, there is no doubting the symbolic significance of Marathon, or the way in which well after the Persian Wars the victory was exploited in epigram and painting. For instance, there was a famous rendition of the Battle of Marathon in the “Painted Colonnade” at Athens (now lost), which was perhaps commissioned by Miltiades’ son Cimon. This was celebratory artistic propaganda, with a far clearer message than that of the Peisitratids. The Battle of Marathon and the Persian Wars must be recognized as an artistic watershed. There was admittedly something splendid about the gesture of sending help to the Ionian revolt, and it has been suggested accordingly that early 5th-century depictions on vases of Theseus attacking the Amazons (inhabitants of Anatolia) may be a coded allusion to Athens’ Asiatic adventure of the 490s. The vindictive Athenian treatment of the playwright Phrynichus for referring in a play to the fall of Athens’ daughter city Miletus shows, however, that the Ionian revolt was a dangerous subject, not lightly to be treated by pot painters. Marathon was the beginning of an epoch that lasted for centuries, during which Athens asserted its claim to uniqueness on the basis of two things: its achievements in the Persian Wars and (in and after the 4th century) its cultural primacy.
Meanwhile the Persians retreated, and Darius died, to be succeeded in 486 by Xerxes. No Greek could have doubted that Marathon, for all its symbolic importance, was not the end of the matter and that Xerxes would return with a much larger invasion force.