We may say of wars what a famous philosopher said of revolutions, that they happen about little things, but spring from great causes. When Herodotus at the beginning of his History proceeds to put on record the grounds of the great feud between the Greeks and the Barbarians, he tells us of various outrages committed by one party or the other. The Phoenicians began by carrying off Io, daughter of Inachus; the Greeks retaliated by landing at Tyre and bearing away the king's daughter Europe. This they followed by the capture of Medea, a princess of Colchi. When Paris of Troy ran away with the fair Helen from Sparta he was only setting the account straight. It was then that, according to the Persian sages, with whom Herodotus seems to agree, the Greeks made a fatal mistake. They actually led a great army into Asia to recover a worthless woman, though "men of sense care nothing about such people."
The fact is that the Greeks, as a very enterprising and active race, came into frequent collision with their Eastern neighbours. We catch glimpses of this in very remote times. To these, however, we need not go back. Towards the end of the eighth or early in the seventh century b.c. , the kings of Lydia began to encroach on their Greek neighbours and conquered city after city. Croesus, who was the last of the dynasty, had made himself master of all of them before he was himself overthrown by Cyrus the Persian. This event meant nothing for the Greeks but a change of masters, and this was not a change for the better. Lydians and Greeks had long been neighbours, and could contrive to live on tolerable terms. The Persians were strangers from a remote country, and were of a harsher temper. In 502 b.c. a general rebellion took place, in the course of which Sardis, the local capital of the Persians, was burnt. A contingent of Athenian troops took part in this affair, and their presence was the immediate cause of the great struggle that followed. The war between Greece and Persia lasted, with intervals of doubtful peace, something less than 180 years. The first great conflict was at Marathon.
In the late summer of 490 b.c. the Persian army landed at the Bay of Marathon, distant from Athens about twenty miles as the crow flies, about twenty-five by the only road practicable for wheeled conveyances. Of the Persian numbers we know nothing. Herodotus, who is our best authority (born in 480, he probably talked with men who had fought in the battle), gives no figures. Later writers speak of impossible numbers, 600,000 being the largest, 110,000 the smallest estimate. To carry even 110,000 across the Ægean sea would have been a heavy task. If a guess has to be made, one may venture to say 60,000. The Athenians numbered 10,000, and they had with them 1000 men from Platæa, a little Boeotian town, which they had recently taken under their protection. The Plain of Marathon is about six miles long from south-west to north-east, and in breadth varies from two and a half to one and a-half miles. On the north-east it is bounded by a great marsh, which is divided from the sea by a narrow slip of land. There is another smaller marsh on the south-west. Along the edge of this swamp ran the road to Athens. It was probably the immediate object of Datis, the Persian general, to seize this road, and of the Athenian commanders to protect it. Their right wing rested on the seaward slope of what is now called Agrieliki, the north-eastern spur of Pentelicus. About a mile from this may still be seen the remains of the mound which was raised over the bones of the Athenians slain in the battle. It is probable that this marks the spot where the fight raged most fiercely. If this is so, the Persian lines must have been advanced to within a short distance of the rising ground.
The Athenians, on learning the actual approach of the Persian forces, had sent a swift runner to Sparta to beg for help. The man reached Sparta, a distance of about one hundred and forty miles, in less than forty-eight hours ("on the second day" is the expression). The Spartans promised to come, but could not start, they said, till after the full moon, which was then five days off. The question then among the Athenian generals—there were ten in number and had each his day of command—was whether they should fight at once or wait for the Spartan contingent. The ten generals who shared the command of the army were equally divided in opinion. But Miltiades, the most distinguished of their number, was eager for instant action, and succeeded in winning over to his views Callimachus the Polemarch, with whom it lay, in case of an equal division, to give the casting vote. We shall see that he had good reasons for his action, and that his promptitude saved Athens; and, we may say, Greece.
The centre of the Persian line of battle was held by the native Persians and Sacæ, these latter a tribe now represented by the Turkomans. Of the rest of the formation we are told nothing. Some cavalry there was, but it is not mentioned as taking any part in the battle. It has been conjectured that it had not been disembarked when the battle was fought. It would certainly have been difficult to get the horses on board again, and if any number of them had been captured, we should probably have heard something about it. The Athenian line was drawn up so as to be equal in length to the Persian. To effect this it was, of course, necessary to make it very thin in parts. This was the case in the centre, where there were but two or three files. No light armed soldiers, no archers, no cavalry were present. All were heavy armed men with a few slaves in attendance. The right wing was commanded by Callimachus; the Platæans were on the left.
There was, as has been said, a space of a mile between the two armies. Miltiades ordered the Athenians to cross this at a run. Such a thing had never been done before in regular warfare. It was an amazing feat of strength, for the men were in heavy armour. Not less remarkable was the courage of the movement, for in those days the Greeks had not learned to look down upon the Persians. To the enemy the charge seemed to be the act of madmen; but they must have felt that such madmen were dangerous enemies, and must have been shaken in the confidence with which they had looked forward to victory. Still they stood their ground, and met their assailants in hand-to-hand fight. They even broke the centre of the Athenian line, which, as has been said, was but two or three files deep. Herodotus even says that "they pursued them into the middle country," a curious phrase, seeing that the battle was fought only a mile or so from the sea shore. But in hand-to-hand fighting, when the conditions were at all equal, the Persians were no match, either in training or in equipment, for their adversaries. The poet Æschylus, himself "a man of Marathon," the proudest title which an Athenian could bear, speaks of the war of the Persian against the Greek as the battle of the bow against the spear. In the Persæ, the drama which celebrates the crushing defeat of Persia in its second assault on Greece, he makes the chorus, consisting of the Great King's councillors, boast of how their lord would bid
"The arrows' iron hail advance
Against the cumbrous moving lance;"
a happy stroke of irony when it was known that the lance had prevailed over the arrow. It certainly prevailed that day. Both the wings were victorious in the shock of arms, and when they had put to flight the ranks opposed to them they turned to restore the fortune of the day in the centre. This they soon accomplished. Before long the whole Persian line wag in rapid retreat. Pausanias says that many of the fugitives rushed into the marsh, and, indeed, that the greater part of their loss was thus caused.
Miltiades, anxious to complete his victory, followed up the flying enemy, and endeavoured to cut off his retreat. Here he was less successful, and, indeed, incurred serious loss. In the attempt to burn the Persian ships not a few distinguished Athenians fell. The Polemarch and another of the generals were among them; so was a brother of the poet Æschylus, who, having laid hold of one of the ships, had his hand cut off by an axe, and died of the wound. The Persians contrived to get away, not losing more than seven of their ships, but leaving behind them in their richly furnished tents an ample booty for the conquerors.
Athens, however, was not yet safe. Hippias, who along with his brother had once held despotic power in the city, and had been driven into exile twenty years before, had come with the Persian army, hoping that his friends—for he still had a party that plotted for his return—would move in his favour. They did not altogether fail him. When the Persians had re-embarked, a signal—a polished shield flashing in the sunlight—was perceived on the summit of Pentelicus. This was to indicate that the Persians should take advantage of the absence of the army and sail round to Athens, and that the party of Hippias was ready to act. Part of the fleet accordingly took the direction of Cape Sunium, which it would have to round before it could reach Athens. Miltiades seems to have been aware of what was intended, and at once gave orders to march back to Athens with all haste. This was done, and the traitors were foiled. The Persian fleet, it will be seen from the map, would have to make a circuit of about sixty miles, while the army would have to march less than half that distance.
The Persian loss is put down by Herodotus at 6,200, a moderate figure which is very probably near the truth. Of the Athenians, one hundred and ninety-two were slain. They were buried on the field of battle, and a mound heaped over their remains. On the top of this were placed ten stone pillars, one for each of the Athenian tribes, inscribed with the names of the slain. An eleventh pillar commemorated the Platæans, a twelfth the slaves who fell in the great victory. After the death of Miltiades a monument was erected to him on the same spot. The pillars have long since perished, but the mound remains. It is thirty feet high and about 200 yards in circumference. It was excavated in 1890–91 by order of the Greek Government, and found to contain human remains, with pottery of the very period of the battle. Writing about six centuries later, Pausanias says, "Here every night you may hear horses neighing and men fighting," and adds that it brings bad luck to go out of curiosity, but that "with him who unwittingly lights upon it by accident the spirits are not angry." The same tradition lingers about many of the great battlefields of the world. Shepherds who fed their flocks on the plains of Troy saw spectres in armour, and conspicuous among them the spirit of the great Achilles. The scenes of the great battles of Attila and Charlemagne are still said to be thus haunted.
It only remains to say that 2,000 Spartans arrived on the day after the battle, that they went to the field of battle to see the Persian dead, and after greatly praising the Athenians, returned home.