2.4 The significance of the battle of Marathon for the Athenians and the other Greeks
The battle of Marathon was a major turning point for the Athenians. In the late Sixth Century, some twenty years before this battle, the Athenians had begun to develop a democratic system of government in which each man had the right to speak about and vote on state policy. Each citizen was given some measure of power and responsibility for what happened in his state. Nevertheless, the system was a new one, and this must have been an uncertain time, as no other state had yet developed such a system.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Athens went on to become a highly successful state: by just over sixty years after the battle of Marathon, her leader, Pericles, was claiming that the city was an education to the rest of Greece. Indeed, she had become something of a cultural centre with philosophers, historians, playwrights, architects and artists from all over the Greek world coming to the city. Athens became a leading state, with numerous political allies, and even turned her alliances into an empire, so that much of the Greek world was subject to her power. Marathon may have given the Athenians the confidence to move forward and take a more prominent role in Greece.
To what extent Marathon is responsible for the development of Athens it is impossible to say, but it is clear that had the Athenians lost the battle, they might well have become subjects of the Persians and become part of the Persian Empire. Given the Spartans somewhat laid back attitude before Marathon, it seems unlikely that they would have come to the aid of the Athenians had this happened.
Herodotus does not speak much about the consequences of the battle. However, something of his view may be implied by the speech which he puts into the mouth of Miltiades, as he was attempting to persuade Callimachus that it was time to fight.
‘It is down to you, Kallimachos, either to enslave Athens or to make her free and to leave a memorial of yourself for the whole span of human history greater than even Harmodios and Aristogeiton. For now the Athenians have come to the greatest crisis they have ever faced, and if they submit in slavery to the Persians, it is clear what they will suffer when handed over to Hippias; but if this city survives, it will be able to become the most powerful of all the Greek cities. … If you accept my opinion about what to do, our fatherland will be free and will be the first city in Greece. But if you choose to vote with those who do not wish to fight, you will achieve the opposite of what I have just said.
This speech is, of course, written after the event by Herodotus, at a time when Athens had become one of the greatest states in the Greek world. It does show, however, that Herodotus at least saw Marathon as a key moment in the development of the city.
One important aspect of the Athenian victory was the absence of the Spartans: the Athenians had become a military force to be reckoned with. Until that time, everyone turned to Sparta for military help – the Ionians, for example, had done this when they wished to start their revolt. Now, however, the Athenians had been successful, and all the Spartans could do was to congratulate them. This must have strengthened Athens’ position both for the coming battles against Xerxes and, subsequently, in the development of her defensive league against Persia, the Delian League, which later became the Athenian Empire.
The Delian League
After the defeat of the Persians in 479BC, the Greeks were faced with the question of how to protect themselves against the continuing threat posed by the Persians. The Spartans were not willing to take on the burden of leadership, so the Athenians began a defensive league called the Delian League. It was so called because its treasury was at Delos, an island sacred to Apollo. Members of the league paid either tribute money or ships to the Athenians, who, in return, guaranteed their safety from Persian attack. During the course of the fifth century, this League changed into an Empire for the Athenians, who came to have ever increasingly power over their allies.
The Athenians themselves held the victors of Marathon in great esteem. Some forty years later, their leader Pericles persuaded the Athenians to build the Parthenon, a great temple on the Acropolis in the centre of Athens. Around the centre of this temple runs a sculptural frieze which depicts a religious procession in Athens, the Panatheaic procession. There are 192 men in this procession, and some believe that these were the victors of Marathon. There is no written evidence to this effect, but the fact that there are 192 men is suggestive. If this is this case, it would reflect the highest possible honour for those who died: to be shown on a temple, the house of the goddess Athena, at a time when the Greeks were only just beginning to show humans on their temples.
In the second century AD, a Greek doctor named Pausanias travelled around Greece, and wrote an extensive guidebook. He visited Marathon over half a millennium after the battle, and described the place as follows:
There is an area called Marathon… At this point in Attica, the barbarians landed and were overpowered in battled and they lost some of their ships which they were putting off from the land. There is a tomb of these Athenians in the plain, and on it grave-markers giving the names of each of those who died by their tribe, and another for the Plataeans from Boeotia and another for slaves. For slaves also fought then for the first time. And there is a separate monument for Miltiades, son of Cimon, alone, although he died later… There through the whole night it is possible to hear the horses neighing and men fighting… The Marathonians worship those who died in this battle, calling them heroes… The Athenians say that they buried the Persians, as the divine law always requires a corpse to be hidden in earth, but I was not able to find a tomb. I could not seen a mound nor anything other indication, as they took them to a trench and throw them in haphazardly.
Herodotus also tells us that before the Battle at Marathon, no Greek could hear the name ‘Persian’ without terror. Perhaps the events of this day gave the Athenians and other Greeks to face the Persian threat when it reappeared in 480BC. Darius returned to Persia, and never again fought against the Greeks. It was left to his son, Xerxes, to launch the next expedition.
Describe two ways in which the victors at Marathon were honoured by the Athenians.
Explain two reasons why the victory at Marathon was significant for the Athenians.
Describe how you think the battle of Marathon might have affected how the Athenians were seen by the rest of the Greeks.