Spartans and Plataeans
Pheidippides’ Run to Sparta
When the Athenians sent Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta to ask for help, Herodotus tells us that he met the god Pan on the way. Pan was disappointed that the Athenians had not been honouring him, and made this clear to Pheidippides. The runner reported this to the Athenians on his return, and when they were victorious at the battle, the Athenians set up a shrine to the god.
Once the Athenians heard that they were being attacked, they drew up their forces ready to meet the Persians. They were commanded by ten generals: Miltiades amongst them. Before they left Athens the Athenians sent a message to Sparta. A long-distance runner named Pheidippides ran the 150 miles (240 km) to Sparta to ask the Spartans for help, and not to stand by whilst the most ancient city of Greece was crushed and enslaved by a foreign force. The Spartan response was rather unhelpful: it was the ninth day of the month, and they were engaged in a religious festival, so they could not come until the full moon. Pheidippides returned to Athens with the news that the Athenians would have to face the Persians without Spartan help.
However, the neighbours of the Athenians, the Plataeans, had decided that they would help with every available man. The Athenians had previously helped the Plataeans in a dispute with their neighbours the Thebans, and so the Plataeans were now obliged to help the Athenians. As a result when the battle began the Plataeans fought on the left wing, and were the only support that the Athenians had.
1. Explain why the Spartans refused to help that the battle of Marathon.
2. Explain why the Plataeans decided to help.
The Progress of the Battle
Our only nearly contemporary account for the battle of Marathon comes from Herodotus. He describes how the Athenian commanders were divided in their opinion: a number thought that their forces were too small to offer any hope of success. However, Miltiades was determined that they should fight. Because opinion was equally divided he had to pursue the eleventh person who was allowed to vote, the polemarch, or War Archon. At this point, Callimachus held this office, and it was to Callimachus that Miltiades turned to and spoke forcibly in favour of fighting. Miltiades persuaded Callimachus that it was indeed the right time to fight, and so the decision was taken that the Athenians should face the Persians in battle.
Under the Athenian democratic system, each general took the presiding position in turn, each for a day. Those who had voted with Miltiades offered that he should take their position on the days when they were in turn to be in charge. Whilst Miltiades accepted their offer, he refused to fight until it was his own day. When this day came, he moved the Athenian army into position ready for the fight: Callimachus commanded the right wing, and the Plataeans were on the left wing. Because the Persian forces were so wide, the Athenians were very spread out, and the centre, between the two wings, was very shallow, whilst the two wings were strong.
After making the appropriate sacrifices, the Athenians entered the battle at a run once they had been given orders to do so. The battle was a long one, and the Persians broke the Greek centre without great hardship. On the two wings, however, the Persians found themselves in difficulties, and were defeated by the Plataeans and Athenians. Once these Persian forces began to flee, the Athenians turned their attention to the Persians who had broken through the centre: they united with the Plataeans, and formed a single unit which followed the Persians down to the sea, where they defeated them.
At the end of the battle, Herodotus tells us that 6400 Persians had been killed, as opposed to 192 Athenians. The number of Athenian dead is likely to be accurate, as the Athenians recorded the names of each man on a grave marker on the mound where they were buried. That of the Persians is less likely: it is thought that it was calculated by assuming that every three Athenians who died killed 100 Persians.
The Persians must have thought that their large force would be sufficient to conquer the Athenians. Why then did they fail? One important aspect of the battle is the absence of the Persian cavalry. In Herodotus’ account there is no mention of them being used during the battle. If the Persians had been unable to deploy their cavalry, and were forced to fight the more heavily armed Athenians in hand to hand combat, it is easy to see how they might have been defeated.
Another aspect of the Athenian victory was their strategy: whether by design or accident their weak centre caused a large number of the Persians to pass through their ranks and then find themselves trapped between the Athenians and the sea with no means of escape.
Write a brief account of the battle of Marathon.
Explain two reasons why you think the Athenians were victorious at this battle.
Explain two reasons why you think the Persians lost this battle.
What do you think of the Spartan response to the Athenian request for help? Explain your answer.
TASK 2D: Source-based Exercise
Read Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon, Herodotus, 6.102-117.
Write a brief summary of the account.
Describe two features of this account which you think are distinctive.
What do you think the strengths and weaknesses are of Herodotus’ account? Explain your answer.