Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Battle-Field of Freedom

All the Greek cities of the mainland of Asia Minor shared the fate of Phocæa, though all were not equally resolute in protesting against it. The islands which lie near the western shore soon lost their independence, and even the more remote were threatened. Europe itself was not safe. Though the Persian King Darius made a disastrous failure in his attempt to annex the desolate wastes of Scythia, his lieutenants conquered Thrace and received the submission of Macedonia.

By this last acquisition the Persian Empire was brought up to the northern frontier of Mainland Greece, and it became evident that the conquering spirit of the new Asiatic power would not rest till an effort had been made to bring the whole Hellenic race under its sway. Meanwhile the Asiatic Greeks had been growing restless under the Persian rule. An open revolt, which doubtless had been long meditated, was hastened by personal causes. Histiæus, tyrant of Miletus, had done a signal service to Darius, and the king had rewarded him by carrying him back to his capital and making him one of his confidential advisers. The Greek soon wearied of his splendid captivity, and conceived the idea—somewhat extravagant, it seems to us—of putting an end to it by exciting a revolt among the King's Greek dependencies. He hoped that he should himself be chosen to suppress it. The ambition of his son-in-law and vicegerent at Miletus had been working meanwhile to the same end. This man, Aristagoras by name, had hoped to aggrandize himself by adding the island of Naxos to the dominion of his Persian master. He had induced the King to send a fleet under his orders. A Persian noble was, however, associated with him in his command. A fierce quarrel broke out between the two colleagues, and the Persian took his revenge by sending secret intelligence to Naxos of the meditated attack. The Naxians, thus put on their guard, put themselves into a state of defence, and the expedition failed, leaving Aristagoras hopelessly involved. He had lost his credit with the King, and he had made himself responsible for a great part of the expenditure. In the midst of his perplexity the message from Histiæus arrived with the suggestion of a revolt, and he saw in it a way out of his difficulties.

His first step was to lay down his despotic power. This was a most politic measure. To combine deliverance from domestic tyranny and freedom from a foreign yoke, was a prospect which appealed strongly to the Greek mind. The tyrants were banished or slain everywhere, and before many months had passed every Greek city was in arms against the King.

Aristagoras sought allies in Mainland Greece. The Spartans repulsed him; but the Athenians and Eretrians sent a squadron of thirty-five ships to his help. The arrival of the contingent so emboldened the Asiatic Greeks that they attacked Sardis, the seat of the Satrap or Governor of Western Asia Minor. The city was captured, sacked, and burnt. After this success everything went wrong. Finally at Lade in 496 B.C. the Greek fleet was entirely destroyed, and the revolt was at an end. Miletus was destroyed, and its inhabitants were sold as slaves; the other Greek cities were punished, but less severely.

It remained, however, for Darius to exact retribution from the audacious strangers who had ventured to help his rebellious subjects, and even to sack and burn one of his capital cities. Every day—so the story runs—as the King sat at the feast a slave repeated to him three times, "Master, remember the Athenians!" Four years were spent in preparation. Then in 492 the Satrap Mardonius led an expedition westward. He marched with his army along the northern shore of the Ægean, while his fleet accompanied him. But the fleet met with a storm so furious that three hundred galleys were wrecked, while the fierce Thracian tribes furiously attacked the army. Mardonius repulsed them, but suffered so much in the encounter that he thought it wiser to return. Again Darius busied himself with his preparations, and when two more years had passed they were once more complete. He could now punish his insolent enemies, and put them, for the future, under a government which would probably make them better behaved.

Six hundred ships of war with a fleet of transports, carrying more than a hundred thousand men, of whom a considerable part were cavalry, assembled at Samos. Few doubted, the Persian leaders certainly did not doubt, that their task would be easily accomplished. Greece was but an insignificant district, scarcely equal to one of the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the Persian Empire; and the prestige of victory was with the invaders.

The Persian generals—there were two, one of them, Datis by name, a Mede by birth—took a direct course over the Ægean. Naxos, which had stood a siege ten years before, was surrendered without a blow, though it could muster eight thousand heavy-armed. The neighbouring islands were reduced by the fleet. Eretria, one of the chief offenders in the late war, fell. Separated from Mainland Greece by only a narrow strait, it was captured after a brief siege, some of its principal citizens betraying it to the foe. From Eretria the Persians crossed to the bay of Marathon, a spot on the Eastern coast of Attica, and distant a little more than twenty miles from the city. The bay, sheltered as it was on the north side by a promontory, and skirted by a firm beach, was a favourable place for landing, nor, as it seems, did the Athenians make any attempt to hinder it.

The whole force of the city was, however, ready to do battle with the invaders. Help had been sough from Sparta, the runner who bore the request, traversing, the distance, which was not less than one hundred and forty miles, in forty-eight hours. The Spartans promised assistance, but could not give it at once. It was their custom to set out on an expedition at the full moon, and at no other time; the moon then wanted five days to being full, and there must therefore be five days' delay. Accordingly the Athenians were left alone to bear the brunt of the Persian attack.

They were joined, however, on the eve of the battle by a thousand heavy-armed soldiers from Platæa. This was a little town, numbering, we may calculate, some eight or ten thousand inhabitants, which had seceded from the Bœotian confederacy, and to which Athens had accorded her protection some twenty years before. Unasked, moved by a gratitude which is not the less admirable because it was in accord with her interests, the gallant little state sent her whole force to stand by her ally in a critical moment.

The military organization of Athens was but ill suited to meet a sudden danger. The command of the army was held in commission by ten generals, one for each of the ten tribes of Attica. Its movements were decided by a majority of votes, but the details of tactics were under the direction of a single general, all taking the office for a single day, and in regular rotation. An officer entitled the polemarch, or "war-chief," the third in rank of the ten archons, was an eleventh in the military council.

On this occasion the ten were equally divided in opinion. Five were for postponing an engagement. It would be better, they thought, to wait for help, such, for instance, as the Spartans had promised, from the other Greek cities. Five, headed by Miltiades, who was beyond doubt the most distinguished Athenian of the time, pleaded for immediate action.

To shut themselves up within their walls, and there await the Persian attack, would, he argued, be to invite the fate of Eretria. There traitors had been found to open the gates to the enemy, and traitors would not be wanting in Athens. There were many whose affections and interests incline them to the cause of the banished tyrants, and these would certainly be active at such a time. Miltiades, backed, it is said, by Themistocles and Aristides, urged these views in the council of war, and privately on the polemarch, Callimachus by name, on whose casting vote the decision depended. Happily the polemarch was persuaded, and it was resolved to fight at once. Miltiades's nine colleagues yielded to him their right of command, and the unity of purpose that is so essential to success was thus secured. Whether the army was already encamped on the rising ground that overlooks the plain, or was still within the city walls when this discussion took place, cannot be determined. That Miltiades should have waited till his own proper day of command came round, it is difficult to believe, though we are told that he did so.

However this may be, it was on the 12th of September 490 B.C., that the battle which was to decide the fate of Greece, we may even say of the world, was fought. Miltiades drew up his force, ten thousand, or, if the Platæans are to be added to that number, eleven thousand in all.

The ten tribes of the Athenian people had each their separate place; that to which the polemarch belonged occupying the place of honour on the right wing, while the Platæans were on the extreme left. The line was so extended as to be equal in length to that of the far more numerous Persian host. It was a bold piece of strategy, for it involved a dangerous weakening of the centre, where, indeed, the troops were but three deep, but it was a protection against the danger, so formidable to all non-professional soldiers, of being outflanked. At the word of command the little army moved forward, at first at it moderate pace, afterwards, when the distance between them and the enemy was something less than a mile, at a run.

The effect of this movement, which, indeed, seemed to the Persians the act of madmen, was astonishing. It put an end to the confidence with which the invaders anticipated the result of the conflict. The men who dared so to charge a far superior foe must have, they thought, a more than human strength or must rely on more than human help. When the two lines closed in conflict, the Athenian wings, on which Miltiades had massed his troops to the utmost of his resources, were speedily victorious. The Greeks were superior in strength and equipment to their adversaries, and here at least their formation was not wanting in solidity. Things went less favourably at the centre. Here—always the post of honour in an Asiatic army—the best troops, the native Persia and the warlike Sacæ, were posted. The Greek line, perilously weak as it was, was broken, and the troops composing it were forced back to the very edge of the plain. Miltiades was not so occupied with his own success as not to perceive this reverse, which, indeed he must have anticipated. He recalled the victorious wings from their pursuit of the flying enemy, and wheeled them round against the Persian centre, which they took in the rear. This, probably disordered by its own success, was speedily broken, and the whole army fled to their ships. Many were lost in the marsh which bordered the plain on the north, but the rest made good their escape. The Athenians, it is true, made a determined effort to destroy the ships, but they failed, and, indeed, suffered no small loss in the attempt. Several of their bravest warriors fell at this spot, Callimachus the polemarch, Ctesilaus, one of the ten generals, and a brother of the poet Æschylus, himself also among the combatants. Only seven ships were burnt. The total loss of the Persians was six thousand four hundred; that of the Athenians and their Platæan allies was one hundred and ninety-two. These were buried on the field; a mound was raised over them, and ten pillars—one for each tribe—preserved for posterity the names of those who had fallen. Ever after the "Men of Marathon" were regarded as the foremost heroes of Athenian history. Any satire or censure directed against the degeneracy of later times was always pointed by a contrast with the warriors who had fought and conquered in this famous battle.

The victorious troops had, however, something yet to do. The Persian fleet, instead of putting out to sea, sailed towards Athens. The partisans of the tyrants had exhibited a signal which indicated that they were prepared to betray the city. But the signal, the flashing of a shield, probably from the height of Pentelicus, had been caught by the eye of Miltiades, and he conjectured its import. Instantly he gave the signal to march; the army made its way with all speed to the city, which they reached before the fleet, which had to traverse the long coast line from the bay of Marathon to Athens, could arrive. Overawed by this sudden movement, the traitors did not venture to act, and the Persians, after lingering a few days, sailed homewards.

Two thousand Spartans arrived on the day after the battle. They had started immediately on the appearance of the full moon in the heavens, and marching with all the speed that they could use had reached the frontier of Attica on the third day. This was a feat scarcely less astonishing than that of the runner Pheidippides, as it implies a march of more than forty miles on three successive days. All that they could do was to visit the field battle, where the corpses of the fallen Persians still lay unburied.

It is a remarkable fact that no mention is made of the Persian cavalry. Yet a force of cavalry certainly accompanied the expedition, and might have been used, we cannot but think, with great effect. Professor Curtius thinks that the Persians were preparing to embark when Miltiades attacked them and that the cavalry were already on board. He would thus account for the success with which the embarkation seems to have taken place after the battle. If everything had not been in readiness the Persians must have suffered far more severely than they actually did.