Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

The Athenians At Marathon

The time came when Darius of Persia did not need the bidding of a slave to make him "Remember the Athenians." He was taught a lesson on the battle-field of Marathon that made it impossible for him ever to forget the Athenian name. Having dismally failed in his expedition against the Scythians, he invaded Greece and failed as dismally. It is the story of this important event which we have next to tell.

And here it may be well to remark what terrible consequences to mankind the ambition of a single man may cause. The invasion of Greece, and all that came from it, can be traced in a direct line of events from the deeds of Histićus, tyrant of Miletus, who first saved Darius from annihilation by the Scythians, then roused the Ionians to rebellion, and, finally, through the medium of Aristagoras, induced the Athenians to come to their aid and take part in the burning of Sardis. This roused Darius, who had dwelt at Susa for many years in peace, to a thirst for revenge on Athens, and gave rise to that series of invasions which ravaged Greece for many years, and whose fitting sequel was the invasion and conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great, a century and a half later.

And now, with this preliminary statement, we may proceed with our tale. No sooner had the Ionian revolt been brought to an end, and the Ionians punished for their daring, than the angry Oriental despot prepared to visit upon Athens the vengeance he had vowed. His preparations for this enterprise were great. His experience in Scythia had taught him that the Western barbarians—as he doubtless considered them—were not to be despised. For two years, in every part of his vast empire, the note of war was sounded, and men and munitions of war were actively gathered. On the coast of Asia Minor a great fleet, numbering six hundred armed triremes and many transports for men and horses, was prepared. The Ionian and Ćolian Greeks largely manned this fleet, and were forced to aid their late foe in the effort to destroy their kinsmen beyond the archipelago of the Ćgean Sea.

An Athenian traitor accompanied the Persians, and guided their leader in the advance against his native city. We have elsewhere spoken of Pisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, whose treason Solon had in vain endeavored to prevent. After his death, his sons Hipparchus and Hippias succeeded him in the tyranny. Hipparchus was killed in 514 B.C., and in 511 Hippias, who had shown himself a cruel despot, was banished from Athens. He repaired to the court of King Darius, where he dwelt many years. Now he came back, as guide and counsellor to the Persians, hoping, perhaps, to become again a despot of Athens; but only, as the fates decreed, to find a grave on the fatal field of Marathon.

The assault on Greece was a twofold one. The first was defeated by nature, the second by man. A land expedition, led by the Persian general Mardonius, crossed the Hellespont in the year 493 B.C., proposing to march to Athens along the coast, and with orders to bring all that were left alive of its inhabitants as captives to the great king. On marched the great host, nothing doubting that Greece would fall an easy prey to their arms. And as they marched along the land, the fleet followed them along the adjoining sea, until the stormy and perilous promontory of Mount Athos was reached.

No doubt the Greeks viewed with deep alarm this formidable progress. They had never yet directly measured arms with the Persians, and dreaded them more than, as was afterwards shown, they had reason to. But at Mount Athos the deities of the winds came to their aid. As the fleet was rounding that promontory, often fatal to mariners, a frightful hurricane swooped upon it, and destroyed three hundred of its ships, while no less than twenty thousand men became victims of the waves. Some of the crews reached the shores, but of these many died of cold, and others were slain and devoured by wild beasts, which roamed in numbers on that uninhabited point of land. The land army, too, lost heavily from the hurricane; and Mardonius, fearing to advance farther after this disaster, ingloriously made his way back to the Hellespont. So ended the first invasion of Greece.

Three years afterwards another was made. Darius, indeed, first sent heralds to Greece, demanding earth and water  in token of submission to his will. To this demand some of the cities cowardly yielded; but Athens, Sparta, and others sent back the heralds with no more earth than clung to the soles of their shoes. And so, as Greece was not to be subdued through terror of his name, the great king prepared to make it feel his power and wrath, incited thereto by his hatred of Athens, which Hippias took care to keep alive. Another expedition was prepared, and put under the command of another general, Datis by name.

The army was now sent by a new route. Darius himself had led his army across the Bosphorus, where Constantinople now stands, and where Byzantium then stood. Mardonius conveyed his across the southern strait, the Hellespont. The third expedition was sent on shipboard directly across the sea, landing and capturing the islands of the Ćgean as it advanced. Landing at length on the large island of Eubœa, near the coast of Attica, Datis stormed and captured the city of Eretria, burnt its temples, and dragged its people into captivity. Then, putting his army on shipboard again, he sailed across the narrow strait between Eubœa and Attica, and landed on Attic soil, in the ever-memorable Bay of Marathon.

It seemed now, truly, as if Darius was about to gain his wish and revenge himself on Athens. The plain of Marathon, where the great Persian army had landed and lay encamped, is but twenty-two miles from Athens by the nearest road,—scarcely a day's march. The plain is about six miles long, and from a mile and a half to three miles in width, extending back from the sea-shore to the rugged hills and mountains which rise to bind it in. A brook flows across it to the sea, and marshes occupy its ends. Such was the field on which one of the decisive battles of the world was about to be fought.

The coming of the Persians had naturally filled the Athenians and all the neighboring nations of Greece with alarm. Yet if any Athenian had a thought of submission without fighting, he was wise enough to keep it to himself. The Athenians of that day were a very different people from what they had been fifty years before, when they tamely submitted to the tyranny of Pisistratus. They had gained new laws, and with them a new spirit. They were the freest people upon the earth,—a democracy in which every man was the equal of every other, and in which each had a full voice in the government of the state. They had their political leaders, it is true, but these were their fellow-citizens, who ruled through intellect, not through despotism.

There were now three such men in Athens,—men who have won an enduring fame. One of these was that Miltiades who had counselled the destruction of Darius's bridge of boats. The others were named Themistocles and Aristides, concerning whom we shall have more to say. These three were among the ten generals who commanded the army of Athens, and each of whom, according to the new laws, was to have command for a day. It was fortunate for the Athenians that they had the wit to set aside this law on this important occasion, since such a divided generalship must surely have led to defeat and disaster.



But before telling what action was taken there is an important episode to relate. Athens—as was common with the Greek cities when threatened—did not fail to send to Sparta for aid. When the Persians landed at Marathon, a swift courier, Phidippides by name, was sent to that city for assistance, and so fleet of foot was he that he performed the journey, of one hundred and fifty miles, in forty-eight hours' time.

The Spartans, who knew that the fall of Athens would soon be followed by that of their own city, promised aid without hesitation. But superstition stood in their way. It was, unfortunately, only the ninth day of the moon. Ancient custom forbade them to march until the moon had passed its full. This would be five days yet,—five days which might cause the ruin of Greece. But old laws and observances held dominion at Sparta, and, whatever came from it, the moon must pass its full before the army could march.

When this decision was brought back by the courier to Athens it greatly disturbed the public mind. Of the ten generals, five strongly counselled that they should wait for Spartan help. The other five were in favor of immediate action. Delay was dangerous with an enemy at their door and many timid and doubtless some treacherous citizens within their walls.

Fortunately, there was an eleventh general, Callimachus, the war archon, or polemarch, who had a casting vote in the council of generals, and who, under persuasion of Miltiades, cast his vote for an immediate march to Marathon. The other generals who favored this action gave up to Miltiades their days of command, making him sole leader for that length of time. Herodotus says that he refused to fight till his own day came regularly round,—but we can scarcely believe that a general of his ability would risk defeat on such a childish point of honor. If so, he should have been a Spartan, and waited for the passing of the full moon.

To Marathon, then, the men of Athens marched, and from its surrounding hills looked down on the great Persian army that lay encamped beneath, and on the fleet which seemed to fill the sea. Of those brave men there were no more than ten thousand. And from all Greece but one small band came to join them, a thousand men from the little town of Platća. The numbers of the foe we do not know. They may have been two hundred thousand in all, though how many of these landed and took part in the battle no one can tell. Doubtless they outnumbered the Athenians more than ten to one.

Far along the plain stretched the lines of the Persians, with their fleet behind them, extended along the beach. On the high ground in the rear were marshaled the Greeks, spread out so long that their line was perilously thin. The space of a mile separated the two armies.

And now, at the command of Miltiades, the valiant Athenians crossed this dividing space at a full run, sounding their pćan or war-cry as they advanced. Miltiades was bent on coming to close quarters at once, so as to prevent the enemy from getting their bowmen and cavalry at work.

The Persians, on seeing this seeming handful of men, without archers or horsemen, advancing at a run upon their great array, deemed at first that the Greeks had gone mad and were rushing wildly to destruction. The ringing war-cry astounded them,—a Greek pćan was new music to their ears. And when the hoplites of Athens and Platća broke upon their ranks, thrusting and hewing with spear and sword, and with the strength gained from exercises in the gymnasium, dread of these courageous and furious warriors filled their souls. On both wings the Persian lines broke and fled for their ships. But in the centre, where Datis had placed his best men, and where the Athenian line was thinnest, the Greeks, breathless from their long run, were broken and driven back. Seeing this, Miltiades brought up his victorious wings, attacked the centre with his entire force, and soon had the whole Persian army in full flight for its ships.

The marshes swallowed up many of the fleeing host. Hundreds fell before the arms of the victors. Into the ships poured in terror those who had escaped, followed hotly by the victorious Greeks, who made strenuous efforts to set the ships on fire and destroy the entire host. In this they failed. The Persians, made desperate by their peril, drove them back. The fleet hastily set sail, leaving few prisoners, but abandoning a rich harvest of tents and equipments to the victorious Greeks. Of the Persian host, some sixty-four hundred lay dead on the field, the ships having saved them from further slaughter. The Greek loss in dead was only one hundred and ninety-two.

Yet, despite this signal victory, Greece was still in imminent danger. Athens was undefended. The fleeing fleet might reach and capture it before the army could return. In truth, the ships had sailed in this direction, and from the top of a lofty hill Miltiades saw the polished surface of a shield flash in the sunlight, and quickly guessed what it meant. It was a signal made by some traitor to the Persian fleet. Putting his army at once under march, despite the weariness of the victors, he hastened back over the long twenty-two miles at all possible speed, and the worn-out troops reached Athens barely in time to save it from the approaching fleet.

The triumph of Miltiades was complete. Only for his quickness in guessing the meaning of the flashing shield, and the rapidity of his march, all the results of his great victory would have been lost, and Athens fallen helpless into Persian arms. But Datis, finding the city amply garrisoned, and baffled at every point, turned his ships and sailed in defeat away, leaving the Athenians masters of city and field.

And now the Spartans—to whom the full moon had come too late—appeared, two thousand strong, only in time to congratulate the victors and view the dead Persians on the field. They had marched the whole distance in less than three days. As for the Athenian dead, they were buried with great ceremony on the plain where they fell, and the great mound which covers them is visible there to this day.