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Graeco-Persian War Battlefields near Athens: Plataea and Marathon plus Aegosthena
We’re all familiar with the athletic reference to the Marathon as an Olympic sport, so what better way to examine how this first the headlines than to explore the place itself?
Marathon is, and was, not only a town but a region in the north-east coast of Attica that included a small coastal plain. There are two theories about how it got its name; one is that it comes from the herb fennel, marathos in Greek, which grows profusely in the wild in Attica; the other is Pausanias’s notion that it was from a hero called Marathon, who came to Attica with the Dioskouroi (Castor and Polydeuces, the twins) from Sparta. Whatever the origin, the name has resounded in Greek history since ancient times. It has mythical connections, not least with the notorious Bull of Marathon, while the place is definitely best known as the site of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC– one of the most renowned in classical, if not world, history. This was an unprecedented turning point in the Greek city-states’ resistance against the Persian attempt to conquer Europe.
As well as the battlefield itself, there is so much to see here, covering five millennia of civilisation, form Neolithic to Byzantine times. We shall explore all this amidst a tantalising backdrop of natural beauty that is the Schinias National Park, which includes the historic gorge Oenoe near Lake Marathon – a paradise for walkers, let alone marathon runners!
Before the reign of Theseus, Marathon was the name given to Tetrapolis – a region that covered four cities (Marathon, Oenoe, Trikorynthos and Provalinthos). This spanned the area around the modern Marathon from about Nea Makri to the south, to Oenoe to the north. The Marathonii tribe worshipped the demi-god Heracles, and the hero’s descendants, the Heraclidae, settled here after defeating the Mycenaean king Eurystheus, who had dictated the 12 Labours of Heracles. The most famous local myth is that of the Bull of Marathon, whose presence was a result of the hero’s seventh Labour.
Heracles had to travel to Crete to capture this bull, which was the father of the fabled Minotaur. After swiftly overpowering the bull, he brought it back alive to Eurystheus at Mycenae. He then allowed it to roam free in Arcadia and somehow it managed to make its way north to Corinth, and reached the plains of Marathon, where it wrought havoc with the locals. Fortunately, Theseus, prince of Athens, heard of this and put an end to the beast.
The historian Plutarch, later reporting on the Battle of Marathon, wrote that the Athenian troops had been spurred on by a vision of the ghost of Theseus leading the charge against the Persians. Pausanias told of a mysterious stranger at the battle described as:
[…] a man of rustic appearance and dress. Having slaughtered many of the foreigners with a plough he was seen no more after the engagement. When the Athenians made enquiries at the oracle, the god merely ordered them to honour the Echetlaus (he of the Plough-tail) as a hero […]
Perhaps there is also a celestial connection with the Plough constellation here as is the case with the legendary Bull.
History and Archaelogy
In the reign of King Theseus in Athens, the twelve cities of Attica were united to form one state and the four towns that had formed the Tetrapolis were made into separate demes (districts). As Marathon was more powerful than the other three nearby towns, the whole area was still referred to under this name.
The plain of Marathon is open to the sea to the east facing Euboea and enclosed by the foothills of Mt Penteli (then Brilissus, later Pentelicon). This provided an attractive harbour for the Persian triremes crossing from the recently taken cities of Eretria and Karystos in Euboea. Their plan, as advised by Hippias, the exiled tyrant of Athens, was to pitch camp and regroup their troops there to head down the route between the mountains of Penteli and Hymettus to conquer Athens.
Before turning to a description of the islands, I must again proceed with my account of the parishes. There is a parish called Marathon, equally distant from Athens and Carystus in Euboea. It was at this point in Attica that the foreigners landed, were defeated in battle, and lost some of their vessels as they were putting off from the land. On the plain is the grave of the Athenians, and upon it are slabs giving the names of the killed according to their tribes; and there is another grave for the Boeotian Plataeans and for the slaves, for slaves fought then for the first time by the side of their masters.
As a quick précis of how the Athenians became a target, both they and the Eritreans had attacked the Persians at Sardis in 499 BC, when they came to the aid of the Ionian cities of Asia Minor against the Persians, who were ruled by Darius I. Darius, still bearing a grudge, had already invaded Eretria and was out to capture Athens.
Like all accounts of ancient battles, the exact numbers involved varied in the telling. Herodotus, the Greek historian who was the main source, drew his lengthy reports on this and subsequent conflicts from the words of the survivors. he mentioned 600 triremes (triple-decked ships) which could have held up to 90,000 men in total. Plutarch, Pausanias and Simonides of Cos estimated 300,000 consisting of cavalry and infantry. Philosophers Plato and Lysias inflated this figure to 500,000 – half a million Persians! The actual number may have been closer to 25,000, which still gave them at least a 2:1 edge against the Greeks, who had a maximum force of 11,000. This was the entire Athenian army – around 10,000 – plus 1000 hoplites from Plataea.
Getting wind of the approaching enemy fleet, the Athenians marched the 40 kilometres to Marathon and took up their defensive positions blocking the exits from the plain. Meanwhile their fleetest-of-foot envoy, Pheidippides, ran over 200 kilometres to Sparta to muster support from this mighty ally. After all, Spartans were famed for their warrior spirit; they were trained to fight from the age of seven. Spartan men were purely bred to fight – but only when their gods allowed: during the Spartan festival of Carneia, these gods frowned upon anything but peaceful celebrations. Spartans explained their dilemma and promised to send back-up after the next full moon, which was due around 10 days later. Poor Pheidippides scurried back to Marathon with the disappointing news, an amazing three days after he’d set off. Some say he collapsed from exhaustion and died upon his return, others maintain he died in the battle. Certainly, a round trip of around 450 kilometres running came at a price.
Seriously outnumbered facing the enemy, the Athenians and Plataeans held back, maintaining a defensive stance for a few days before advancing. The sketchy accounts of the battle suggest that the Athenian chief commander, the Polymach, Kallimachos (Callimachus) was in charge. Herodotus claimed that Kallimachos deliberately procrastinated, keen to defer the attack till Spartan aid arrived, as he realised this was to be a make-or-break battle since there were no troops left defending the city walls. The general Miltiades the Younger was all for a speedy confrontation. All told, there were ten Athenian generals, who took turns at leading the army on a daily rota basis. So another theory regarding the delayed battle was that Miltiades politely waited for his daily turn before he stepped in and did things his own way. He had vast first-hand experience of fighting against Persians, who had driven him out of his own lands in Asia Minor.
So how did the Greek victory come about? First, the geography of the terrain was in their favour. The Persians were limited to moving straight across the plain, as was their usual tactic of direct attack, but any retreat meant having to navigate the deadly marshes between the solid land and the sea. Secondly, Persians depended on direct attacks with long-range arrows that would rain down the front lines of advancing troops and would then move in the cavalry, trampling in to finish off the enemy from horseback. Athenians were vulnerable to cavalry attacks, but their heavy shields were stronger than those of the Persians. Their hoplite armour of metal or heavy leather was designed for face-to-face combat, and though their short-range bows were small and light, their swords were heavy and deadly against the flimsy clothing of the Persians. This was also evident at the later battles at Thermopylae and Plataea.
One famous theory is that Miltiades ordered the attack when most of the Persian cavalry were absent. (They may have been on the way by sea to attack Athens from the south.) From this, the Greek phrase “Horis hippeis” – without horses – came to be used to refer to a moment of particular vulnerability. A counter-theory is that the Persians moved first, suspecting that the Athenians were playing for time to wait for extra back-up (which was probably true). In either case, whether by conscious strategy or last-minute wiles, when Miltiades gave the command to advance, the Greeks marched to the point where the Persian archers were just out of range. Then, with their heavy shields raised in unison, they charged wildly forward, surprising the Persians. At the same time they spread the line of their phalanx around the sides of the enemy, using a “double envelope” strategy to surround them, while attacking them face-to-face- within their ranks.
Up close, the Persian bows and arrows were useless against the hoplites’ swords. In startled disarray, they fled towards their ships, with the murky swamplands claiming countless lives on the way.
Herodotus’s tally amounted to 6,400 Persian corpses on the battlefield, while the Greek fatalities numbered 192 Athenians (including Kallimachos) and 11 Plataeans.
What of the Spartan allies? Well, they did show up eventually, but only in time to assist with burying the dead. Battlefield burials were not a widespread practice before that point, so it may have been a pragmatic decision, given the sheer numbers involved, for practical reasons of hygiene. Intentionally or not, it was actually an affront to the Persians for whom burial of the body in this way was out of sync with their religious beliefs regarding despatch of the dead.
[…] A trophy too of white marble has been erected. Although the Athenians assert that they buried the Persians, because in every case the divine law applies that a corpse should be laid under the earth, yet I could find no grave. There was neither mound nor other trace to be seen, as the dead were carried to a trench and thrown in anyhow.
King Darius realised he had underestimated the Athenians. And it was another ten years before his son Xerxes led the Persians to face the famous Spartan-led force at Thermopylae.
The historic Marathon race of around 42 kilometres between Athens and Marathon, said to commemorate the runner who relayed the news of the victory to the city and died the moment he uttered the single word ‘nenikeikamen!’ (‘we are victorious!’), was first held during the first modern Olympic Games that took place in Athens in 1896. The tradition continues annually along the same route, a tribute to the triumph of the classical Greek spirit.
The Site today
There is something for everyone at Marathon. In addition to the monuments and the burial mounds at the battlefield site, we must visit the Archaeological Museum of Marathon for a comprehensive view of the battle’s history and the region’s past in general. Among the other artefacts here, there is a room which contains statues from the ancient Egyptian Sanctuary of Brexica, which lay on an island in the swamplands, like one of those in the River Nile itself.
If we have the time and inclination to take a walk in the beautiful Oenoe gorge, we will pass the historic Cave of Pan and the Pythian Apollo. It seems there was likely to have been a Sanctuary of Apollo at Oenoe, which was directly connected with the traditions of Delphi. Near the cave are the ruins of a medieval tower dating back to 1250 AD, left by the Frankish ruler, Otto de la Roche, who attempted to oust the Byzantine Empire and appointed himself Lord of Athens.
There are plenty other museums around, including two Folk Museums to visit nearby, at Nea Makri and Varnavas. The former town also boasts the Monastery of Saint Ephraim. Said to have been a Byzantine martyr in the early 15th century, Ephraim was hailed by some as a miracle-worker. This belief still attracts hordes of pilgrims every year, in search for miracle cures. Varnavas, on a more practical note, lays claim to the European Museum of Bread devoted to… bread!
All images copyright Eric CB Cauchi / Eternal Greece Ltd, unless otherwise stated.