The battle waged on the Marathon plain of northeastern Attica in 490 B.C. marked the first blows of the Greco-Persian War. With the Persians closing in on the Greek capitol, Athenian general Miltiades assumed command of the hastily assembled army. Miltiades employed a successful strategy in which he weakened the center of his force to strengthen its wings, causing confusion among the Persians. The victory of “the Marathon men” captured the collective imagination of the Greeks, with the tale of the messenger running 25 miles to Athens to deliver the news fueling the creation of the modern marathon.

The first encounter on the Greek mainland between East and West took place on the small seaside plain of Marathon, twenty-six miles northeast of Athens. The Persian expeditionary force of Darius I was not large, perhaps numbering under thirty thousand. But it arrived confident after storming the nearby Greek city-state of Eretria. Moreover, no allies except the Plataeans joined the Athenian resistance of less than ten thousand troops, and some autocratic regimes in Attica supported the invaders in the hope of toppling the fledgling democracy.

To meet the larger invading force, the Athenian commander Militiades weakened his center and reinforced his wings, hoping that his hoplites could hold the middle while his flanks broke through the lighter-clad Persian infantry. In fact, the Athenian center broke, but it held long enough for the Athenians to rout the Persian wings and meet in the rear, causing a general panic among the invaders.

Almost immediately, the victory of “the Marathon men” captured the collective imagination of the Greeks. Ceremonial funeral mounds of the legendary 192 Athenian dead and the loyal Plataeans were erected on the battlefield. Epigrams were composed and panoramic murals were put on display. No wonder: it had been Athens’s finest hour, when its democratic yeomen alone had beaten back the imperial might of Persia (see Persian Wars).

The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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