The Battle of Marathon

There are two astonishing ratios about the Battle of Marathon.

There were almost exactly 11,000 Greeks: that's 1,000 men from each of the tribes of Athens, and 1,000 men from nearby Plataea.

The Persians used 600 boats to ferry in troops. The actual number of troops is unknown, but for that number of transport craft it comes to between 30,000 and 100,000 Persians, including a few thousand cavalry.

So the first ratio is that the Greeks were outnumbered somewhere between 3:1 to 9:1, depending what assumptions you want to make about Persian transports.

The next ratio is known with great precision:

203 Greek dead.
6,400 Persian dead.

That's 32 Persian dead for every Greek who fell.

Which isn't bad going when you're not just outnumbered, but also you're the attacking side.

The casualty numbers are known because the Greeks set up a memorial that listed all their fallen.  The Persian numbers are known because before the battle the Greeks had promised to the Gods to sacrifice a goat for every enemy they killed.  They counted the Persian dead carefully and then discovered they'd killed so many enemies that they couldn't find enough goats.  They paid off their debt to the Gods on a yearly instalment plan that took thirteen years to complete.

Despite its vast importance, there's very little agreement about what actually happened.  Modern historians can’t even agree on which direction the opposing lines faced, let alone details like whether the Persian cavalry took the field.

One theory goes that the Persians were aligned with their backs to the sea, and the Greeks attacked from inland.  Like so:

I just can't credit this.  As you can see the plain of Marathon forms a rectangle that runs lengthways along the coast, ringed by mountains to landward.  The Greeks would have to be insane to place their grossly outnumbered troops where they could be easily outflanked by the numerically superior Persians.  Also this alignment puts their left flank in easy reach of the Persian cavalry.

I'm pretty sure if you gave this problem to any modern military commander, he would instantly place his outnumbered Greeks so that they had to span the shortest possible line. Which would be like this:

Right.  From The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz
This map comes from the excellent The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz. My copy's sitting by my left elbow as I write this.

You'll notice there's solid land in the top right of one map and a small bay in the other. Most maps put a marsh there. In fact the Greek coastline changes constantly and all three options have been on that spot at one time or another. Nobody really knows what was there when the battle was fought.

The Greeks made the decision to take the fight to the enemy.  Each soldier lightened his battle load as much as possible the night before and then they marched out at first light.

The next big point of contention is that Herodotus states, very clearly, that the Greeks marched to within 8 stadia of the enemy, and then they ran in the rest of the way under a hail of arrows.

At the ancient Olympics there was an event in which the competitors ran two lengths of the stadium — two stadia — in soldier’s kit.  The men of Marathon ran four times that distance, knowing that at the end they would have to fight for their lives against an enemy many times more numerous.

A lot of modern historians discount that story out of hand, on the grounds that heavy infantry can't run almost a mile and then fight.

The problem is, that the ancient sources are absolutely unanimous that that's what happened.  Every written source, every sculptural relief , gives the same picture.  And Herodotus, who is often vague on numbers, is absolutely precise on this one.  Herodotus also goes out of his way to make the point that everyone dropped as much load as they could, even shedding armour so they could move fast.

Why did they have to run?  I think the reason was the Persian cavalry, who could have torn the Greeks apart. Herodotus says the cavalry was there, but once the battle begins he never mentions them.  I think the reason is that the Greek plan was to engage the enemy line before the enemy cavalry had time to deploy. With the mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it meant that once the infantry engaged the mounted troops were bottled up behind their own line.

The fact is that modern elite troops could make that run.  The counter-argument is that the citizen militia of Athens weren't professional soldiers.  Which is true.  But what is also true is that we're talking about the most successful citizen army in all history, and those guys in the line knew with utter certainty that they wouldn't live to midday if they didn't cross the field in time.

Why all the pushing and shoving?

Since I feel I don't have enough people hating on me, I thought I'd talk about something that Merry asked long ago: What's the origin of the conflict between the Greeks and their neighbours to the east?

This subject is really delicate, to put it mildly. So since I'm only talking about the origins, I'll stick to the ancient stuff and ignore all the modern incidents (of which there are enough to fill a book). This is also, quite obviously, Gary's interpretation of events.

It's not true, by the way, to say the conflict has been between only Turks and Greeks. The Greek world has been in conflict with almost every culture and people who've controlled the land which today we call Turkey. The west coast of Turkey, which is really the area of conflict, was known in those days as Asia Minor. I'm going to call it Asia Minor from now on.

The first record of conflict between the Greeks and people of Asia Minor is the Iliad, by a guy called Homer. Since that's the oldest book in the Western world, this has obviously been going on for some time.

The people of Troy have no genetic or cultural relationship to modern Turks, so whether the Trojan War counts as the origin of the current long-lasting conflict is doubtful. It would be hard to say Greeks and Turks hate each other today because Helen had it off with Paris 3,000 years ago. Also, after the Trojan War, things quietened down a lot. For a few hundred years there was nothing between the sides but the usual raids, pillaging, rape and murder which is the stuff of everyday life.

It didn't really get official again until a rather interesting incident in about 508BC. By this time the Persian Empire, which had its origin far to the east, had expanded until it controlled everything all the way to the coast of Asia Minor. In the same period the ever-growing Greek population had expanded and placed colony cities all up and guessed it...the coast of Asia Minor.

The Greek cities of Asia Minor were therefore under Persian rule. Now, Greek culture is highly individualistic, but the Persians were simply stronger, the Greeks were nothing if not realists, and in any case Persian rule was relatively light. As long as the Persians didn't rip off too much in tribute, the situation was semi-stable.

Athens at this time had recently overthrown the last of the Tyrants, and there was a bitter power struggle between factions for control of the city, a struggle in which Sparta decided to lend a hand to put their own man in charge. The Spartans sent an army. No one had ever beaten the Spartans in battle.

When the Athenians heard a Spartan army was on the way, they at once sent an embassy to the Satrap at Sardis. A Satrap was the Persian term for the governor of a province, and the city of Sardis was at that time the effective capital of Asia Minor. The Satrap of Sardis was a guy called Artaphernes. A Satrap is a powerful man at the best of times, but this Artaphernes also happened to be the brother of the Great King.

The Athenians asked Artaphernes for protection against the Spartans. Artaphernes said that was fine, as long as the Athenians offered earth and water. To offer earth and water is Persian-Speak for submitting to the Great King, and thus become a client state of Persia.

The Athenian embassy said...yes. (!)

The desperate Athenians handed over earth and water on the spot. At that moment, Athens and all of Attica became a part of the Persian Empire.

The Athenian embassy returned to Athens, secure in the knowledge that Athens was safe from Sparta, only to discover the crisis with Sparta was over, and Athens no longer needed protection.


The ambassadors got into huge trouble for offering earth and water. Whether or not this was fair is not clear. Greek sources claim the ambassadors acted without authority, but then, they would say that, wouldn't they?

The Athenians decided"forget" that embarrassing little incident had ever happened. The Persians had better memories.

The Persian leadership, which had not really noticed the Greeks before, suddenly realised they had some irritating people on their western flank. What's more, in Persian culture, to lie was a terrible thing. Persian boys were taught only three things: to ride the horse, to shoot the bow, and to abjure the lie. The Athenian embassay had, in effect, lied in the face of the brother of the Great King.

It was all downhill from here. The Greek cities in Asia Minor revolted against the Persians, and the Athenians heavily supported the revolt, which ended with the Greeks getting their asses whipped.

The Persians decided to fix the problem by putting one of the old Tyrants back in control of Athens. That caused the Battle of Marathon, which ended with the Persians getting their asses whipped.

Artaphernes later sent ambassadors to Sparta, demanding earth and water. The Spartans tossed the ambassadors down a well, saying they'd find plenty of earth and water down there. Diplomacy in those days did tend to be robust.

The next Great King decided to do the job properly, with the Persian Wars.

And so it has gone on. If you're looking for the start of the long term conflict, I think the Athenian embassy to Artaphernes is it. There've been odd moments when one empire or another has controlled both sides of the Aegean Sea, such as the Roman and Byzantine, and at those times it's been quiet. There've also been periods when one side of the other has been too poor to make much trouble. But for those moments, there's been pushing and shoving ever since 508BC.

The ultimate issue is who gets control of Asia Minor. The natural balance of force lies along the coastline, so that the Greeks get all the islands and whoever's on the other side gets the Asian land. From time to time during history, one side or the other has been able to push across, but it always ends with a return to the natural border, which is what we more or less have today.

The dog of Xanthippus

Xanthippus, the father of Pericles, was a war hero from the time of the invasion of the Persians. In the early stages of the conflict he commanded a trireme.

Like any wealthy landholder, Xanthippus owned a hunting dog. We don't know the name of his dog, but we do know they were inseperable. They went to war together, even to sea battles.

After the Persians broke through at Thermopylae it was clear Athens couldn't be saved. Themistocles, who more or less commanded the Greek forces, ordered the evacuation of the city. Amazingly, his proclamation still exists, inscribed in a stone tablet. Here's a picture from Wikimedia Commons. The authenticity of the tablet is considered controversial by some, but the odds are fair you are looking at the real thing.

Even with the best preparation, the evacuation of a major city could have been nothing but a shambles. Crowds of people – the whole city, tens of thousands – packed the ports desperate to get away before the Persians enslaved the women and children and killed the men.

The Athenians used their whole fleet, which was the largest in the world, plus anything that would float. Hundreds of boats rowed from the port of Piraeus to the island of Salamis where they had refuge, every trip dangerously overloaded. It was like an ancient version of Dunkirk but with civilians thrown in. Herodotus says it was amazing how few boats capsized.

This was 19 years before the time of my first novel. Nicolaos is 1 year old; Pericles is a boy. They would both have been taken to the relative safety of Salamis. But there weren't enough boats to save everyone. They got away all the able-bodied men, and the women and children who were the future of the city. Then they had to make some hard decisions. Old men, old women, the badly injured and the sick, had to stay behind. There was no room or time.

Xanthippus commanded the last boat out. Probably the Persians were already in the city. The dog of Xanthippus was occupying very little room, but it was room where another man could stand. Xanthippus had to choose between his dog, and saving the life of one more Athenian. He released the dog onto shore and ordered him to run away to the hills, hoping he'd survive. The men began to row. The boat would have been so full the sea lapped at the gunwales. The people left behind would have been wailing and screaming for them to return.

Xanthippus' dog watched his master depart. Then he leaped into the sea, and swam. He caught up the boat and stayed with it, swimming alongside. The people onboard saw what he was doing and shouted encouragement. There's no way a dog should have been able to keep pace with a trireme, but he did. Presumably the load on the trireme was such it could move only very slowly. To swim the distance was impossible, but the dog refused to give up.

The dog of Xanthippus swam all the way from Piraeus to Salamis.

When they got there the dog staggered up onto the beach and collapsed onto the sand, and there, with Xanthippus, he died of exhaustion.

Xanthippus was devastated. He built a tomb for his dog at the place where he died, and ever after, that point on the headland was called Dog's Tomb.

A few days later, in a do-or-die effort, the Greeks crushed the Persian navy in the straits of Salamis.