Before 300, there was Marathon, the earliest one on the list.
Name: The Battle of Marathon
The War: The first Persian invasion of Greece, part of the lengthy Greco-Persian Wars
When: August/September 490 BC*
Where: The plain of Marathon, south-eastern Greece
Forces/ Commanders: Circa 10’000 Greeks (mostly Greeks with some Plataeans) under Militiades the Younger and Callimachus against 20’000-200’000* Persians under Datis and Artaphernes.
-Militiades order to his troops
“Fighting in the forefront of the Hellenes, the Athenians at Marathon
destroyed the might of the gold-bearing Medes.”
-Epigram of the Athenian tomb
Author’s note: Most of the following is based of information from the Histories of Herodotus, one off the earliest historical texts. However, the information contained within can charitably be described as “debatable” but its the best record we have. Some things, like the size of both armies and their command structures, are difficult to determine and are based of the best guesses of modern historians.
This period of history was a time of great upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean. The Persian Empire was a relatively new entity, dealing with many internal rebellions while expanding its borders in all directions. It’s King, around 500 BC, was Darius, a usurper to the throne, who had his eye on Greece.
Greece had gone through its own changes. A series of revolts, coups, and outside intervention had produced an Athenian democracy, one that stood against the military power of neighbours Sparta and Persia. Democracy was a relatively new thing for mainland Greece: most of the city states were oligarchys or tyrannys. Persia had walked a tight rope on the issue: at once accepting Athenian ambassadors seeking assistance against Sparta while plotting their own attempts to get a tyrant back in power in the city.
Things came to a head with the Ionian revolt, when, due to a botched Persian attack on the island of Naxos, a number of city states rose up against their Persian overlords and, obviously inspired by Athens, declared democracy. Athens, unhappy with the obvious expansion of Persia, sent troops and ships to assist the rebellion.
Clashes took place in Asia Minor, and while the Athenians had some success, they were eventually driven back across the Aegean. Darius quickly crushed the revolt and began planning for a further expedition across the Hellespont. Led by local satrap Artaphernes and a Median Admiral named Datis, this expedition burned Naxos and Eretria before turning their attention to Athens.
The Persians landed their fleet in the Bay of Marathon, roughly 25 miles from Athens. The Athenians responded by mobilising every solider, or hoplite, that they could and marching to face them. This force numbered roughly 10’000 men under the apparent command of 10 democratically elected Generals though the main figures were Callimachus, the War-Archon and Militiades, one of the Generals from the Ionian campaigns. While the Athenians moved to meet their Persian foe, emissaries were sent to Sparta seeking assistance against their common enemy: the Spartans, in the middle of a festival, were religiously bound not to send any reinforcements for 10 days.
Arriving on the plain of Marathon, the Athenians, joined by 1’000 Plataeans, were outnumbered at least 2-1, possibly more. As such, they sought to delay battle until the Spartans could send help. The result was 5 days of confrontation, maneuvering and retreating. Neither side seemed willing to risk a pitched battle with the other. Sometime after the fifth day, this changed.
One of 2 things happened: The Persian cavalry was embarked onto their ships, perhaps for a raid on Athens itself, which invited a Greek attack, or Persian advances were finally answered by a Greek assault. Either way, battle was finally joined on the plain, with the Persians having the numerical advantage.
Due to calender inconsistencies by Herodotus, the date of the battle is not known, but was probably either the 12th of August or September.
The armies approached one another. The Greek arranged themselves deepest at the flanks (8 ranks) and thinnest in the centre (4 ranks). Such an effort might have been to prevent the Persians rom outflanking them. The Persians themselves were arranged in equal strength across their line.
As the armies neared, Militades gave the order to charge. This was actually a unique occurence, as the heavily armored Greek hoplites would rarely have run anywhere (it’s likely they were close enough to the enemy to offset this in terms of fatigue). The Persian archers and missile troops opened up, but were stunned when their weapons had little effect: the hoplites were simply too thickly armored.
The result was devastating as the Greek infantry smashed into the Persian lines. The Persians were lightly armored, with no shields of any consequence: the swords and strong spears of the Greeks had an easy time cutting through the enemy.
The Persian’s were able to match the Greeks in the centre, but their flanks were devastated. Soon, the Persian army was flanked on both side, and soon after, enveloped completely. After a short time panic took hold and the army broke. Callimachus had been killed leading the right flank.
Running to their ships, many were cut down by the pursuing Greeks or drowned in the nearby marshes. The rest took to their ships and abandoned the Greek mainland.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
It, more or less, ended that first invasion. The Persians attempted a direct strike at Athens with the remnant of their army, but a quick maneuvering of the hoplites prevented that. With no other recourse, the Persians abandoned the invasion and returned to Asia Minor. Darius was quick to organise a second army to revenge the defeat, but internal rebellion prevented this.
The Athenians, who had previously considered the Persians to be nigh unbeatable, were just as stunned by the victory as the Persians had been. Such was its importance, the Greek dead were buried in a place of honor on the battlefield, rather than the usual practice of being taken home.
The Spartans arrived the following day, and agreed that the Athenians had achieved a minor miracle. A general improvement in Athenian-Spartan relations began, which would be crucial in the coming years.
Darius did not live to attempt revenge; that was left to his successor Xerxes, who launched a massive invasion in 480 BC. This was the war or Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, when Greece united to beat back the Persian foe yet again. Asian interests in Greece were shown to be almost impossible to carry out.
Militides was a hero for Athens, but some later military failures ruined his reputation and he died in prison, heavily indebted.
The very fact that the Persians could be beaten by a Greek army must be considered important, from a morale standpoint if nothing else, but lets look at something else: hoplites. These heavily armoured infantry soldiers had long been the norm of Greek warfare, and Marathon showed that they could make mince-meant of their weaker Persian cousins. Offsetting the weight disadvantage with their skill at arms and defenses, they tipped the scales against the missile-heavy forces of Darius. In their classic phalanx formation, they were nearly impossible to beat by the kind of armies the Persians usually employed.
The Persian arrows and shots simply could not penetrate the Greek army. Marathon began a period of dominance for the hoplite fighter, one that would last for centuries. Again and again they would beat the Persians, and would go on form part of the Macedonian army that conquered Persia itself.
In a larger sense, Marathon might be see to start a period in war where infantry was king, that would last until the archer came once more to prominence in the 14th and 15th century conflicts of France and England.
The double envelopment of the Persian army was also a relatively new idea, to the extent that its likely it was simply luck, rather than a purposeful move on the part of the Athenian commanders.
By general consensus, quite large. Marathon is a watershed in the history of the classical world. Persia’s role as top dog was suddenly in question: 2 tiny city-states had not only beaten, but humiliated it.
And for the next 200 years, with the battle being a rallying cry and an inspiration, the Greeks did it again and again, even toppling the Empire in Alexanders day. Greek culture – its writings, its values, its politics, its democracy – had its preservation assured.
If the Persians had won – attacked earlier, with their cavalry onside and slaughtered the immobile Athenians – many things would have changed. Athens would have been utterly defeated, and would have been lucky to escape a sacking – democracy would have been done. No alliance of Greek city-states, at least not one strong enough to face Persia, would have existed.
Athenian culture and society would have been altered to a huge degree. Persia would have a foothold on the Greek mainland, from which they could have launched further conquests into the European continent. Who knows how far they could have gone?
But more than that, think of what could have been lost. Rome would have been faced with a huge, hostile neighbour stunting its growth. The Renaissance was largely based on the rediscovery of ancient Greek writings, but what if they didn’t exist? American revolutionaries based much of their thinking on the ancient Athenians. What if that inspiration never had time to grow?
Marathon changed the world. Perhaps it is because it happened so long ago, but its Macro-Historical impact is probably the largest of any of the battles on this list.
In National Consciousness
In ancient Greece it was huge. Marathon was one of Athens great moments, pointed to again and again as a symbol of their greatness, of their importance to the Greek world. The Spartans had Thermopylae, the navies had Salamis; but they would not have been possible without the Athenian victory at Marathon. It was the start of a golden age for Athens and for Greece.
For the Persians, the battle was a humiliation, one that they tried to avenge over and over again. They were never really able to.
Many legends have sprung up from the battle but the most well-known is that of Pheidippides. Numerous accounts of his run have merged into a single popular myth, that he ran the 25 or so miles from the battlefield to Athens to announce the victory before falling down dead. Variations say that he ran the 140 miles from the Marathon plain to Sparta in just a day in order to ask for assistance or that the Athenian army marched home in record time to defend against a possible Persian counter attack.
Whatever the truth was, the incident was remembered when the modern Olympic Games were established in Athens in 1896. The organisers founded the “marathon race” from the titular town to the city of Athens and it has been a staple of athletics ever since. Pheidippides ran the distance in an afternoon; the current record stands at 2 hours, 3 mins and 59 seconds, set by Ethopian Haile Gebrselassie in 2008.
The burial mounds and the battle field remain popular tourist attractions in modern Greece. Numerous statues and pictorial monuments to the key figures still exist.
Marathon is worthy of our attention for the sheer weight of its impact on nearly all aspects of the modern world.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.