Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Empire Strikes -- the Marathon Campaign

August of 2020 marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Leading up to that anniversary, I am posting a series of entries on key events and personalities relevant to that historical event.
 Today I continue the series with a brief summary of Marathon Campaign.

Darius had vowed to punish the independent Greek Cities, Athens and Eretria, for aiding the Ionian rebels. He did not consider them important enough or dangerous enough, however, to warrant a major campaign under his personal command. Instead, he sent a sizable (but not enormous) expeditionary force under Mardonios, who had orders to obtain submission from these two cities. Mardonios was the son of Darius' sister, while one of his sisters was one of Darius wives, and one of Darius' daughters was one of Mardonios' wives -- incest was not frowned upon by the Persian elite. 

Mardonios left Susa in the spring of 492 and assembled his fleet and land forces in Cilicia before proceeding up the Ionian coast deposing Greek tyrants and re-establishing democracies, presumably -- and intelligently -- as a means to increase the loyalty of these cities to the Persian empire. He also conquered remaining outposts of independence such as the strategic island of Thrasos, before advancing deep into Macedonia, which submitted to Persia and was absorbed into the satrapy of "Thrace." The Persian land army continued to advance as far as Thessaly, closing in inexorably on Athens and Eretria from the north.

But the expedition ran into trouble when the fleet tried to round Mount Athos and encountered a violent contrary gale. Allegedly, 300 ships and 20,000 men were lost in this catastrophe. While possibly an exaggeration, the violence of Mediterranean storms should never be underestimated and still sink ships today. Without a fleet and with Mardonios wounded in an engagement that the Persians had won, the campaign of 492 ended. 

Darius needed to rebuild his fleet (that is order ships built in the various shipyards of his empire from Phoenicia to the newly subdued Ionian islands), so the next expedition was set for 490. Mardonios was evidently still disabled by his wounds, since a new commander was named for the next expedition, namely Datis. Although his exact origins are unknown, he was a "Mede" rather than a Persian and certainly not a member of the ruling family. This underlines the fact that Darius did not expect any particular trouble subduing the Athenians. He was annoyed that they had dared to support a revolt against him; he did not particularly respect them. His orders were for Datis to bring the Athenians and Eretrians back to him in chains -- slaves.

Datis' strategy (or the strategy dictated to him) was to strike directly across the Aegean, rather than taking the long way around over the Hellespont as Mardonios had done. The expeditionary force again gathered in Cilicia, and this time the entire army with their horses (in special horse transports) embarked on what Herodotus says was 600 ships. Modern historians have tried to calculate how many man and horses might have been transported by these ships and come up with an estimate a maximum of 24,000 troops and 36,000 crew (sailors) while others, based on the water resources at Marathon that sustained the Persian army for a whole week suggest the maximum number was closer to 16,000. 

Whatever its exact size, the Persian army struck across the water at Rhodes. Here the population took refuge in their city of Lindos and when they had just five days of water left, they asked the Persians for a truce for five days, promising to surrender at the end of that time "if nothing happened to rescue them." Datis allegedly laughed but generously granted the peace. The next day, unexpected, torrential rains (very unusual in the Mediterranean in summer) refilled the cisterns of Lindos. The Persians duly made a treaty of "friendship" with the Rhodians and dedicated gifts at the local temples before sailing onwards. Unclear is just what this "friendship" entailed, but historians suspect Rhodes accepted a kind of subject status that left them nominal independence in exchange for token tribute. 

The Persians struck next at Naxos, evidently taking the island by surprise. Rather than offer resistance, the population fled into the hills. The Persians duly burned the city and enslaved those individuals they could capture before sailing for Delos. Here Datis found the population fled from their tiny island altogether, taking refuge on a nearby island. Datis sent word to them, saying he had orders from the "Great King" (Darius) to honor the sanctuary of Apollo and do the residents no harm. He duly made more gifts to the temple after the people returned to witness his generosity. The message was clear: the Persians demanded political loyalty but respected religious diversity. It was a potent combination designed to reduce resistance to their rule, but it was also an enlightened policy that should not be disparaged. It was also largely successful, bringing the rest of the Cyclades into the Persian camp. 

Datis' expeditionary force arrived on the southern tip of Euboea next and quickly subdued the city of Karystos and proceeded to Eretria itself. Eretria chose resistance, and the Persians chose assault. In six days of bitter fighting, there were heavy casualties on both sides -- until two traitors betrayed their city. The details are lacking, but the descendants of the traitors were encountered a century later, their ancestors having received land elsewhere. Eretria itself was "put to the sword." The Temples were looted and burned, the city sacked and the surviving population (said to be just 780 people including old men, women, and children) were sent to Persia as slaves. 

At last, Datis could focus his attention on the main enemy: Athens. While resting his troops (and cleaning up) he gave Athens a last chance to surrender peacefully. He pointed out that not a single Eretrian had survived in freedom. Meanwhile, the Athenian pleas for help had produced only two positive responses: from Plataea and Sparta. The latter, however, could not deploy immediately. (See: Nevertheless, Athens had an estimated 10,000 hoplites plus 600 more from Plataea, and prospects of another 5,000 Spartans showing up within a fortnight. All three cities had an unknown number of light troops, which may have numbered between 8,000 - 12,000 more men. Given that the Persian army had now sustained some losses, the imbalance of forces was not really so overwhelming even if we take the higher number of 60,000, while it might have been smaller than the Athenian army if it was really only 16,000 strong. In addition, the Athenians would be fighting on their own territory for their own city and way of life. They chose defiance.

Datis sailed his expeditionary force across the narrow straits to land on the north shore of the Attican coastline, roughly 40 kilometers or 26 miles north of Athens. As soon as the Athenians learned where the Persians had come ashore, they sent word to the Spartans and Plataeans, mustered their own men, and deployed to the southern side of the plain of Marathon, blocking the roads to Athens. The two armies now faced one another across the plain of Marathon separated by roughly three miles.

The Athenians had ten generals and one supreme commander ("polemarchos"); one general from each of the Athenian "tribes" or demes, and a more honorary than effective "supreme" commander with no real authority. Once the Athenians had deployed there was a war council to decide what to do next and this proved divided equally between those who wanted to attack and those who wanted to remain on the defensive and force the Persians to attack them. One of the Greek generals, Miltiades, a man with experience fighting with the Persians, argued passionately for attack and convinced the "supreme commander" Kallimachos to cast the deciding vote in favor of an attack. Yet, still the generals rotated the actual command, and Miltiades had to await his "turn" before his day to command came.

Many historians have found hints that the Persians, seeing the entire Athenian army in front of them, concluded that it would be easier to take Athens from the figurative "back door" -- ie via Peireius. That is, if they could sail around the peninsula of Sounion and sail into Peireius harbor, they would by-pass the Athenian army at Marathon and would be able to march straight into Athens unopposed. To do that, however, they needed to keep the Athenian army pinned down at Marathon. This dictated a division of their force, keeping half at Marathon and sending the remainder around the peninsula to take Athens from the rear. 

Although some historians dispute this, the thesis is supported by evidence that there were traitors in Athens (supporters of the deposed tyrant Hippias, who was with the Persians advising them), and by the fact that the Persian fleet appeared in Peireius harbor the day after Marathon -- something physically impossible if the ships had remained in Marathon until the end of the battle, then taken on the exhausted troops. The division of the Persian force into two, with one half remaining in position at Marathon while the other half sailed around Sounion to reach Peireius would also explain, why Militiades chose to attack without awaiting the Spartans, who were, by then, already on the march.

Whatever the reason, on a certain day (we don't know the exact date since modern calendars were not in use), Miltiades chose to attack. The two biggest advantages of the Persians were their cavalry and their archers. If the Greeks could get in close, their better armor gave them an advantage in hand-to-hand combat. The Persian cavalry appears to have camped closer to the springs and pastures on the fringe of the Persian force and it took time to catch, tack, and deploy it. By attacking early, the Greeks stood a chance of getting to grips with the Persian infantry before the cavalry could intervene. The faster they deployed, the greater the advantage of surprise. (They could assume the Persians would be surprised; Greeks did not usually attack Persians.) That left the archers to deal with, but the faster the Greeks advanced the more they could reduce the amount of time they were exposed to a barrage of arrows. 

This translated into a "run" for what Herodotus describes as 8 "stadia" (lengths of the Olympic stadium), or -- in modern terms -- roughly a mile. Indeed, Herodotus makes the claim that the Greeks at Marathon were the first Greeks to run simultaneously into battle. Yet the run has been a point of controversy ever since. Early historians claimed it was a "physical impossibility" to "run" for a mile in full Greek hoplite panoply -- and still be fit to fight in a life-and-death struggle on arrival. This lead many to conclude that the Athenians didn't actually run but march "at the double." 

Recent historians have pointed out that early estimates of the weight of Greek panoply were hugely exaggerated. Modern military experience seems to bear out the plausibility of the run. Soldiers in condition can "jog" for a mile (or indeed more) carrying 30 pounds of equipment, or roughly what a Greek hoplite did. It would have taken them roughly 12 minutes to cover those 8 "stadia" and engage the Persian line -- which, taken by surprise and not particularly worried, was still forming. 

During the course of this run, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the wings became stronger and the center weaker. This should have been disastrous because the Persian center was held by their stronger (read Persian and Medan) troops, while the wings were held by various allied troops of less reliability and skill. This resulted in the Greeks pushing the Persian wings back while the Persian center stopped the momentum of the Greek center. Some versions suggest the Greek center broke, but the wings either joined and attacked the Persians center from the rear or turned toward the center and crushed the Persians between them. Everyone agrees it was a fierce and brutal fight that lasted several hours.

At some point, the Persian forces cracked, panic set in, men started running for their ships.  The Greeks pursued, cutting down many of the Persians as they struggled through the shallows desperate to board a ship.  Ultimately, the Greeks captured seven of those ships. Out of a possible 600 (or if the fleet had indeed been divided -- 300) ships that would hardly have been noticeable from the Persian perspective. What was far more remarkable was that the Persians allegedly left 6,400 dead upon the field of Marathon compared to just 192 Athenian and a handful of Plateans.

It was a great victory for Athens -- and Plataea. The Athenians made much of it -- and the Athenians were very good at telling a good story, particularly one to their credit. Plays were written. Pottery, painting, and sculpture commemorated the victory. Men bragged about participating in the battle on their tombstones. But the 4th century Chian historian Theopompos warned that "the battle of Marathon did not happen  as everyone celebrates it, nor did any of the other  things that the city of Athens brags about and uses to deceive the Greeks." (Fake news!) [Peter Krentz, The Battle of Marathon, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 12.]

More important, it didn't reslove anything. Indeed, it only made Darius more anxious to subdue the pesky mainland Greeks. The campaign as a whole had been a success, bringing Rhodes, Naxos, Delos, and Euboea into the Persian sphere of influence. Now only Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Corinth and some lesser cities of Southern Greece remained. In short, no sooner had the bulk of the troops and ships returned than planning for the next campaign could begin. That next campaign would lead to Thermopylae.

Next month I look at the commander of that expedition, Xerxes. Meanwhile....

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


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