D ARIUS king of Persia, ruled the largest empire in the world at that time. He had conquered much of Greece but some cities still kept their independence. He sent among them heralds, who cried out, "Your mighty master, Darius, is king of Persia and of the world. Send him earth and water, that he may know that you yield to his goodness and submit to his power."
Some of the smaller states obeyed, but Athens and Sparta refused. They threw one herald into a deep pit and said, "Take all the earth you want." Another they cast into a river and said, "There is plenty of water; help yourself!"
Darius was very angry. He raised an army of 120,000 men, put them on board of 600 ships, and sent them to the shores of Greece. They landed and marched on to Marathon, only twenty miles from Athens.
The Athenians sent to the Plataeans and the Spartans for help. Plataea sent a thousand men,-all the soldiers the city had.
But the Spartans said, "It will not be full moon for several days yet. We cannot march until the moon is full. Wait until then, and we will help you."
The Athenians could not wait. They marched out of their city and encamped on the hills around the plain of Marathon. They had only ten thousand men, and there were ten generals. Five of these wished to wait until the Spartans could come to help them; but one, named Miltiades, insisted that they should go immediately into battle. It had been agreed that each general should command for one day and then give place to another; but they changed their plan. Some one said, "Let Miltiades alone be the leader. He asks us to fight now and we will do so. Make him our commander and we will follow him every day and everywhere."
The whole army shouted, "Miltiades! Let only Miltiades lead us!"
He waited until his day of command arrived and then gave the order to march.
The Persians were stretched across the plain. Their best and bravest troops were in the center. Behind them was the beach with their ships lying close to shore. At each end of the plain were deep marshes.
Miltiades put his weakest soldiers in the center while the strongest and bravest were at the sides. The armies were a mile apart. The Greeks charged fiercely upon the enemy, who were more than ten times as many. The brave fighters in the Persian center soon drove back the Greeks, but the men at the wings, or sides, of the foreign army were thrown into confusion by the fierce Greek warriors and ran toward their boats. Many of them fell into the marshes and were drowned.
Miltiades called together his scattered men and marched swiftly against the Persian center. Those soldiers thought that they had already won the fight and were surprised when the Greeks came running upon them. They too fled to their ships, but many were killed and many were lost in the marshes. More than six thousand never reached the vessels, and seven of the ships were destroyed by the Greeks. The Athenians lost only one hundred and ninety-two men. It was a sudden and complete victory.
It is said that the people at Athens first heard the news from a wounded soldier. They were gathered in the market place when this man, bloody and dusty, burst in among them. He had run all the way, twenty miles, to tell the good tidings.
"What news, soldier?" the people cried. "How goes the day? Are we safe, or are the Persians marching now upon our city?"
Tidings from Marathon
The soldier drew himself up to his full height and shook his hand in the air. "Victory!" he cried. "Rejoice, Athenians, our city is saved!" Then he fell dead into the extended arms of his fellow-citizens.
The people believed that the gods had helped them. They said that before the battle began many heard the voice of the great Pan among the mountains, cheering the soldiers forward and promising to them the victory.
Others declared that in the thickest of the fight they had seen Theseus in full armor using his sword against the Persians. No sound followed the blow, but whoever was struck went down and rose no more. Persian spears and arrows fell harmless upon his tall helmet and shining breastplate.
Some said they saw the mighty Heracles with his club driving the Persians into the sea as a shepherd drives his flock into the fold.
The battle of Marathon has always been considered one of the greatest ever fought in the land of Greece. Miltiades was given the highest honors. His statue was set up in a public place; everybody praised him; he was the most popular man in Athens.
Afterwards, with a fleet of seventy vessels, he attacked a town on the island of Paros. He was defeated and wounded. It was proved that he had used the soldiers and ships of Athens against his own private enemy. For this he was fined fifty talents, or sixty thousand dollars, instead of being put to death. He could not pay the money, but was kept in prison and soon died there of his wound. His son Cimon raised the money for the fine and gave his father's body honorable burial.