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Battle of Marathon: Summary, Facts & Map

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  • 0:00 The Battle Of Marathon
  • 0:20 The Background Of The Battle
  • 1:15 The Battle
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Learn about the great Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon. Explore the background of the first Persian War and discover the impact of this battle on the development of western civilization.

The Battle of Marathon

Photograph of modern site of the Battle of Marathon by Adam Carr

Today, this location is a beautiful pastoral image, but over two millennia ago, it was the site of an epic and important battle. The Battle of Marathon was a major battle in the first war between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire. It was a major victory for the Greeks, and some historians argue that it is one of the most important battles in the history of the world.

The Background of the Battle

In the years leading up to the war between the Persian Wars, the Persian Empire had rapidly expanded across the Mediterranean. Under the King Darius the Great, the vast Persian Empire experienced a number of revolts from the peoples they had subjugated. One of the rebelling regions was Ionia, a place on the coast of Anatolia. Ionia was originally settled by the Greeks, and when the Ionian Rebellion began, the Greek city-state of Athens offered some assistance to the rebels.

The Persian Empire, with its massive army, soon put down the Ionian rebellion. However, Darius and the Persian generals were incredibly angry that the Greeks had intervened on the side of the rebels. Although the Greek aid to the Ionians was relatively minor, the Persian army invaded mainland Greece to gain vengeance for the Athenian's aid to the Ionians.

The Battle

In 490 B.C.E., the Persian navy sailed down the coast of Greece and landed at the bay of Marathon, about 40 miles north of Athens. The Athenian army, led by General Miltiades, moved to block the Persians' advance and trapped them on the plains around the bay. While the army kept the Persians at a standstill, Miltiades sent runners to Sparta and Plataea to ask for aid.

The tale of these long distance runners eventually became the basis for the term marathon runner. The Spartans were in the middle of a religious festival but sent word that they would come to the aid of the Athenians as soon as it was completed. Plataea sent 1,000 hoplites, or Greek soldiers, earning the eternal gratitude of the Athenians and helping them to keep the Persians at bay.

For five days, the two armies remained at a stalemate, neither side attacking or advancing. Finally, on the fifth day, the Greeks attacked. Ancient sources remain divided on exactly why the Greeks attacked without the Spartans. According to some accounts, the Greeks attacked because they observed that the Persian cavalry had been loaded onto ships to attack Athens, which was undefended. In other words, they attacked in order to stop the Persians from leaving to attack Athens. Other sources argue that the Persians began marching toward the Greek lines and the Greeks were merely attacking in response.

The Greek army, by some accounts, ran into battle, frightening the Persian archers with their ferocity. The Persians reportedly believed that the Greeks were mad, attacking with neither archers nor cavalry. The Greeks had trained to march into combat in a phalanx, a group of soldiers who would march together using their shields to block arrows and using their spears to stab the Persians. Under this type of assault, Persian archers were ineffective, and the Persian front lines broke under attack.

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