Persian Wars: Battle of Marathon

Greek Leader Militiades
Militiades. Public Domain

The Battle of Marathon was fought in August or September 490 BC during the Persian Wars (498 BC–448 BC) between Greece and the Persian Empire. Following Greek support for an uprising in Ionia (a coastal area in modern-day western Turkey), Darius I, emperor of the Persian Empire dispatched forces west to inflict retribution on those Greek city-states that had aided the rebels. After a failed naval expedition in 492 BC, Darius sent a second army two years later.

Arriving approximately 25 miles north of Athens, the Persians came ashore and were soon hemmed in by the Greeks on the Plain of Marathon. After nearly a week of inaction, the Greek commander, Militiades, moved forward to attack despite being badly outnumbered. Using innovative tactics, he succeeded in trapping the Persians in a double envelopment and nearly surrounding their army. Taking heaving losses, the Persian ranks broke and they fled back to their ships.

The victory helped boost Greek morale and inspired confidence that their military could beat the Persians. Ten years later the Persians returned and achieved several victories before being expelled from Greece. The Battle of Marathon also gave rise to the legend of Pheidippides who reputedly ran from the battlefield to Athens to bring news of the victory. The modern running event takes its name from his supposed actions.


In the wake of the Ionian Revolt (499 BC-494 BC), the emperor of the Persian Empire, Darius I, dispatched an army to Greece to punish those city-states that had aided the rebels. Led by Mardonius, this force succeeded in subjugating Thrace and Macedonia in 492 BC. Moving south towards Greece, Mardonius' fleet was wrecked off Cape Athos during a massive storm. Losing 300 ships and 20,000 men in the disaster, Mardonius elected to withdraw back towards Asia.

Displeased with Mardonius' failure, Darius began planning a second expedition for 490 BC after learning of political instability in Athens. Conceived as a purely maritime enterprise, Darius assigned command of the expedition to the Median admiral Datis and the son of the satrap of Sardis, Artaphernes. Sailing with orders to attack Eretria and Athens, the fleet succeeded in sacking and burning their first objective.

Moving south, the Persians landed near Marathon, approximately 25 miles north of Athens. Responding to the impending crisis, Athens raised around 9,000 hoplites and dispatched them to Marathon where they blocked the exits from the nearby plain and prevented the enemy from moving inland. They were joined by 1,000 Plataeans and assistance was requested from Sparta.

This was not forthcoming as the Athenian messenger had arrived during the festival of Carneia, a sacred time of peace. As a result, the Spartan army was unwilling to march north until the next full moon which was over a week away. Left to fend for themselves, the Athenian and Plataeans continued to prepare for battle. Encamping on the edge of the Plain of Marathon, they faced a Persian force numbering between 20-60,000.

Battle of Marathon

  • Conflict: Persian Wars
  • Date: August or September 12, 490 BC
  • Armies and Commanders:
  • Greeks
  • Militiades
  • Callimachus
  • Arimnestus
  • approx. 8,000-10,000 men
  • Persians
  • Datis
  • Artaphernes
  • 20,000-60,000 men

Enveloping the Enemy

For five days the armies squared off with little movement. For the Greeks, this inactivity was largely due to a fear of being attacked by the Persian cavalry as they crossed the plain. Finally, the Greek commander, Miltiades, elected to attack after receiving favorable omens. Some sources also indicate that Militiades had learned from Persian deserters that the cavalry was away from the field.

Forming his men, Militiades reinforced his wings by weakening his center. This saw the center reduced to ranks four deep while the wings featured men eight deep. This may have been due to the Persian's tendency to place inferior troops on their flanks. Moving a brisk pace, possibly a run, the Greeks advanced across the plain towards the Persian camp. Surprised by the Greeks' audacity, the Persians rushed to form their lines and inflict damage on the enemy with their archers and slingers (Map).

Greek warriors charging in battle.
Battle of Marathon. Public Domain

As the armies clashed, the thinner Greek center was quickly pushed back. The historian Herodotus reports that their retreat was disciplined and organized. Pursuing the Greek center, the Persians quickly found themselves flanked on both sides by Militiades' strengthened wings which had routed their opposite numbers.

Having caught the enemy in a double envelopment, the Greeks began to inflict heavy casualties on the lightly armored Persians. As panic spread in the Persian ranks, their lines began to break and they fled back to their ships. Pursuing the enemy, the Greeks were slowed by their heavy armor, but still managed to capture seven Persian ships.


Casualties for the Battle of Marathon are generally listed as 203 Greek dead and 6,400 for the Persians. As with most battles from this period, these numbers are suspect. Defeated, the Persians departed from the area and sailed south to attack Athens directly. Anticipating this, Militiades quickly returned the bulk of the army to the city.

Seeing that the opportunity to strike the previously lightly-defended city had passed, the Persians withdrew back to Asia. The Battle of Marathon was the first major victory for the Greeks over the Persians and gave them confidence that they could be defeated. Ten years later the Persians returned and won a victory at Thermopylae before being defeated by the Greeks at Salamis.

The Battle of Marathon also gave rise to the legend that the Athenian herald Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens to announce the Greek victory before dropping dead. This legendary run is the basis for the modern track and field event. Herodotus contradicts this legend and states that Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta to seek aid before the battle.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Persian Wars: Battle of Marathon." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, September 9). Persian Wars: Battle of Marathon. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Persian Wars: Battle of Marathon." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).