Before the great battle of Marathon was fought in 490 b.c. , there was much anxious thought on the part of the Athenian commanders. And well there might be, with a force of about eleven thousand men it was proposed, by five of the eleven who made up the Council of War, to march out from the security of Athens to meet ten times their number of Persians—the finest soldiers the world had ever seen—who had swept through the earth as in a cyclone of power that had cast down monarchies and principalities, and who, fresh from victories, were come to take vengeance on devoted Athens for having dared to give aid to rebels against the great King Darius.
By numerical calculation, Athens was distinctly at a disadvantage; she could reckon on no help from outside except a thousand brave men from PlatŠa, who, out of gratitude for assistance in the past, had, unasked, marched forth to give of their best to their ancient allies. Sparta had promised aid, but religious scruples prevented them from setting out until the moon had reached its full. Hence it was that five of the generals counseled delay until the Spartans came.
In other things Athens was strong: country and freedom—both of which meant so much to them, and both of which would be taken from them if the Medes and Persians overcame them—called into action the love that lay in the heart of every Athenian, and so the remaining five generals, chief among them Miltiades, pleaded for immediate action. Miltiades—ambitious, courageous, experienced in the art of war, and conversant with Persian methods, seeing that he had at one time been submissive to Darius, and had even led his men to do battle for their overlord—looking out over the Persian forces massed on the Plain of Marathon, and seeing also the ease with which the Athenians could suddenly swoop down upon them, argued for war.
The voting was five to five. Who should give the casting vote? The Athenian War Board was composed of ten generals, one for each of the tribes into which the Athenians were divided, and an Archon (magistrate), who was known as the War Ruler, and whose greatest privilege it was to lead the right wing of the army into battle. This year the War Ruler was Callimachus, and upon his word depended the question of battle; depended, probably, the safety of Athens; depended, maybe, "the destiny of all the nations of the world." To him, therefore, did Miltiades turn, urging him, with glowing eloquence, to support him in his policy. Callimachus yielded; the die was cast. It was to be war, and war to the end!
Miltiades was offered supreme command of the Athenian army, his fellow-generals professing themselves willing to stand aside, so that he need not wait until his day came round (it being the custom for each general to take command in rotation). Miltiades, however, unwilling to arouse jealousy, refused, and waited until his day came round.
That day having come, Miltiades mapped out his plan of campaign, and ordered his army. Callimachus had command of the right wing; Themistocles and Aristides of the centre; the PlatŠans forming the left wing.
The Athenian line, though equal in length to that of the Persians, was by no means as deep, though the wings were far stronger than the centre. Miltiades had deliberately followed this course, because, with a practised eye, he saw that if the wings were strong they would be at a great advantage, while the centre, being but a few men deep, would be able to rally quickly if by any event they were broken. This was unlikely, because the Greeks had by long training learnt the secret of regular, compact movement which carried everything before it.
Everything being ready, the sacrifices being made, the wax trumpet gave the signal for action, and, chanting their battle hymn, Miltiades' army of ten thousand Persians and one thousand PlatŠans moved out of Athens at the run—an unusual procedure in Greek warfare. Infantry only, armed merely with their long spears and short swords, and wearing their breastplates, helmets and greaves, and carrying their shields, this almost forlorn hope of Athens raced down upon the multitude of Persians, made up of well nigh invincible cavalry and infantry.
The bottom of the hill reached, there intervened between the two armies a mile of even ground, which it was imperative the Greeks should cover before the opposing cavalry could charge upon them. The attack was well planned; the Persians had been dallying in the hope that they might obtain a bloodless victory as the result of the treachery of some who were partisans of Hippias, an Athenian tyrant, who had recently been expelled from the city and had gone over to Darius, and the last thing that they expected was that the Athenians, with so small a force as was at their disposal, would dare to attack the army on the Plain of Marathon. The very foolhardiness of it discomfited the Persians, who were unprepared to receive these men, whom they looked upon as madmen racing to certain death.
At the first sight of the advancing Greeks, the enemy quickly prepared to meet them, "and the Eastern chiefs arrayed, as quickly as time and place allowed, the varied races who served in their motley ranks. Mountaineers from Hyrcania and Afghanistan, wild horsemen from the steppes of Khorassan, the black archers of Ethiopia, swordsmen from the banks of the Indus, the Oxus, the Euphrates and the Nile, made ready against the enemies of the Great King."
Ere all were ready, ere the cavalry had time to form and charge, the solid phalanx of Greeks had hurled itself upon the foe, whose very name even had been a nightmare to them. Greek swords pierced through the weak defence of wicker shields, and did deadly work against unarmoured bodies. The first line of the Medes gave way before the onrushing Greeks, who, keeping their formation, wrought havoc on their foes. These, not a whit less brave than their attackers, stood their ground well, seeking by sheer force of numbers to break the long line of shields.
Hour after hour the battle raged; the Greek centre was broken, hurled back and chased inland, until, coming to uneven ground, they were able to rally and return to the struggle.
The wings of the Athenian army, however, on which Miltiades had laid his greatest hopes, were successful in turning the Persian wings. Instead of pursuing them, when the Persian centre might have swooped down upon them from the rear, Miltiades gathered his two flanks into one body and charged down upon the Persian centre, which till then had been victorious.
Charge after charge did the Greeks make, stopping neither for the arrows which the Persian bowmen at the rear shot in among them, nor for the fierce counter-charges of their opponents, who, forming themselves into groups, made valiant efforts to break the victorious phalanx in order that they might get to close quarters and so be able to use their short lances and scimitars freely. But, steadfast and solid, buoyed up by the love of country, spurred on by the thought of what would be if they failed, the Athenians held on their way, and at last, after one of the greatest battles the world had seen, and after one of the severest struggles within the memory of the Greeks, the Medes and Persians fled. One hundred thousand men conquered; and such men! No king had ever been so consistently victorious as Darius, and here was his great and glorious army put to flight by so small a force!
Back to their ships the Persians fled, followed hard by the Greeks down to the very water's edge. Calling for fire, the Athenians threw themselves upon the ships, seeking to set them on fire. Realising that if this attempt were successful they would be at the entire mercy of their enemies, the Persians fought savagely to drive them off.
Miltiades lost more men here than throughout all the rest of the battle, and Callimachus, the War Ruler, was slain, besides many other noble Athenians. Despite their fierce onset, the Greeks only succeeded in capturing seven ships, the rest rowing rapidly away.
Defeated, but not subdued, Datis, the Persian commander, determined to make one bold bid to capture Athens. Putting on all sail, and setting his oarsmen to row their best, he sailed round to the western coast, hoping to reach Athens before the Greeks, hoping also to find it unprotected, and that the friends of Hippias might even yet render him aid, in which case the city would have fallen an easy prey to his furious army.
Divining his intent, Miltiades quickly reformed his men, who, flushed with victory, were determined not to be beaten at the very last. Marching with all haste back to Athens, they arrived in time to mount guard over their beloved city and so frustrate the plan of Datis, who, realising that he had been outwitted, sailed away, a discomfited and disheartened man.
Too religious to come before, the Spartans arrived when the fight was over, having started immediately after the full moon. Too late for the battle, they yet desired to see the battlefield. They went, they saw, they marvelled, commended the Athenians on their triumph against the common foe, and returned to Sparta.
The battle was over, and Athens was saved; Miltiades and his brave eleven thousand had conquered the unconquered Mede. One hundred and ninety-two Greeks had fallen for their country's sake; six thousand four hundred Persians had found their destiny on the Plain of Marathon.
On the field where they had fought their great fight were the dead Athenians buried, and above their resting-place was reared a lofty mound, and ten great columns, the latter bearing the names of the noble dead. The mound is there, but the columns have long since gone; but never from the mind of man or from the pages of history will fade the story of the Battle of Marathon, when Greek fought Persian for country and for liberty.